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Soldiers are trained to avoid surrender or retreat. Those words aren’t even used, instead replaced by the military term “breaking contact.”
The soldier’s mindset is one reason many combat veterans have trouble readjusting to civilian life when they return home, said Rob Ferrara, once an infantry First Sergeant in the United States Army, and now a resident of San Antonio.
“’Surrender’ is a dirty word in the military,” he said. Yet, that’s exactly what he had to do to begin healing from the many wounds he suffered during his 2006-2007 deployment in Iraq.
Ferrara is just one of 98 wounded military veterans represented in Portraits of Courage, an exhibition of the paintings of former President George W. Bush, opening at the Witte Museum on Saturday, July 21.
Each veteran has a story similar to Ferrara’s, all told by Bush himself in a special downloadable smartphone app and 192-page hardcover catalogue accompanying the exhibition. The books will be on sale in the Witte gift shop for $35, with net proceeds from sales to be donated to the nonprofit George W. Bush Presidential Center and its Military Service Initiative.
Ferrara was medevaced out of Iraq in 2007 after being hit by a roadside bomb, which was “the beginning of the end of my military career. I just couldn’t recover like I wanted to,” he said.
He was speaking of the physical wounds he’d suffered – the seven knee surgeries he’d endured and multiple head injuries. But other, less visible wounds plagued him. On Christmas Day of 2006, he’d led his unit into an attack that cost the lives of three of his men. Thoughts of what he might have done differently haunted him even after his retirement from the military in 2012.
“For too many years, I put the walls up. I was avoiding everybody. I was living in a bottle pretty much, abusing pain medication. I wanted to be numb and escape what I was dealing with,” he said. “Looking back, that was wrong. I should have gotten help. I made the road pretty rough for my family.”
Finally, Ferrara took his wife’s advice and sought treatment this year at a three-week intensive counseling program for people who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I surrendered,” he said, in order to open himself to the program, “and I’m glad I did.”
Through daily individual and group therapy, mindfulness and resiliency training, acupuncture, yoga, and art therapy, the program “opened my eyes to the way I’ve been thinking for the past 12 years, and started to rewire me,” he said.
Eyes As Windows To The Soul
In the catalogue that accompanies the exhibit, Bush writes that the stories of the wounded warriors’ service, injury, and recovery are what drove the paintings. “I’m not sure how the art in this volume will hold up to critical eyes. After all, I’m a novice,” he writes. “What I am sure of is that each painting was done with a lot of care and respect.”
Bush’s energetic, thickly painted impasto brushstrokes are highly visible in the dramatic, close lighting of the Witte’s small second floor gallery. The technique echoes the former president’s most recent teacher, painter and current Texas State Artist Sedrick Huckaby of Fort Worth, as well as other artists Bush has studied, like Lucian Freud and Joaquín Sorolla, who is currently featured in the San Antonio Museum of Art’s Spain: 500 Years of Spanish Painting exhibition.
Many of the veterans represented have participated in Team 43 Sports activities, including W100K mountain bike rides on Bush’s Crawford ranch, and Warrior Open golf outings. Bush selected frames from video of the events to paint sometimes active, full-body images of wounded veterans golfing, as in Sergeant First Class Jacque Keeslar, U.S. Army 1990-2011, with his two prosthetic legs, and close-up portraits, as in Sergeant Leslie Zimmerman, U.S. Army 2001-2004, with her bright red hair and sad green eyes.
An information sheet at the Museum of the Southwest in the former president’s hometown of Midland, where the exhibition was on display earlier this year, noted that for Bush, “the trickiest part of painting portraits was capturing veterans’ eyes.”
Ferrara said Bush’s depiction was spot on. After a Team 43 ride, Bush showed Ferrara the portrait he’d painted. “I started crying,” Ferrara recalled. “I said, ‘Sir, you captured what I was back then just in the eyes.’”
Now, the portrait serves as a reminder to Ferrara of what he was then, and how far he’s come since.
“It’s a great painting and I love it, but it’s a remembrance of the person I was back then, the complete opposite of what I am now, a reminder of never wanting to be that again,” he said.
Ferrara now shares his own surrender to recovery with the “Rolling Fellowship,” his informal therapeutic bicycling program for veterans. Anyone can check his Facebook page to see when and where he’ll be riding next, and all are welcome to join. He also works with the Wounded Warrior Project, which holds 10 events per year for a soldiers’ riding team, he said.
Painting As Therapy
Ferrara said his own experience of art therapy proved the value of expression for struggling veterans.
“Drawing and sketching, you get tunnel vision of what you’re doing. You focus on that and a lot of negatives just disappear,” he said. “You can put your thoughts on a canvas or sketchpad, and not talk to anybody about it, and still get your feelings out there. I think that’s the power of art therapy.”
Ferrara supports Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, though he acknowledges that the war is controversial for some. He speculated that as his own sergeant’s orders have weighed on him, sending troops into combat must weigh on Bush. “When you give an order to go to war, then years later you see the faces of these people, it’s going to tug on your heart a little bit,” he said.
“The passion he put into those paintings, I’m sure he gets some sort of therapeutic relief,” Ferrara said. “He did it as a thank you. He was showing respect … That’s got to be therapy for him,” he said.
In Honor of Their Service
Exhibition designer Randall Webster, chief creative officer for the Witte Museum, echoed that Bush created the paintings out of respect for service members. “The fact that a former president chose to honor them in this way, and that we are a military city, I think it’s extremely appropriate for us to have this exhibit and I hope everyone will see it in that way.”
Webster said the show “is not based on any politics, it’s based on honoring these people who gave so much of themselves, no matter what your personal politics might be.”
A.J. Rodriguez, vice president of external affairs for presenting sponsor Zachry Group, said the Portraits project is “an important example of demonstrating compassion for all veterans, and recognizing their service in a very special and unique way.”
To honor service members during the run of the exhibition, Witte Director of Communications Katye Brought said active military, veterans, and their families will receive free museum admission on two weekends, Aug. 18-19 and Sept. 15-16, sponsored by The USAA Foundation.
On the exhibition’s opening day, Saturday, July 21 from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., several wounded warriors featured in the exhibition will be on hand to talk about their service and transition to civilian life, including Team 43 activities. The museum is open regular hours on the exhibition’s opening day, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Portraits runs through Sept. 30.
The Witte is the last scheduled Texas stop for Portraits of Courage, which debuted in March 2017 at the Bush Center in Dallas, then traveled to the Museum of the Southwest in Midland, and the Johnny Morris Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri.