As she climbed on and off the bicycle we’re using as a prop, one of our current veteran/models recalled her memories of work days during deployment in Iraq. It became a story not of two scenes, but of two views—two ways of seeing.
Working in human resources as an Army enlistee, she worked at a desk in a trailer in Baghdad with a view of Saddam’s palace, the ornate decorations gleaming. Through the window she and her coworkers used to watch ducks in the river, diving under the water, flapping their big wings to dry them, swimming under bridges that wouldn’t be out of place at Oxford or Cambridge. As she told me about the scene, I imagined British students punting along the river—lazy, hot and luxurious. She recalled running around one of Saddam’s son’s palaces as she trained for a marathon with Mika blaring in her earphones, “Big girl, you are beautiful!” (YouTube your way to her fabulous marathon training soundtrack here.)
With some regularity, though, she got a major change of view—if not a change of scenery. As mortar shells started dropping, each soldier in the compound had a choice to make: “You can run to a bunker, or you can stay in your office until it’s over. I know people who would run to the bunker. I would just stay and wait,” she said. The attack would last for six rounds or so, and then before the Americans could call in an aircraft to drop a bomb, the insurgents would pack up and leave. I asked her what she would do, hiding out in the office, to take cover. She looked at me, “Why get under the desk? If that round comes close, your desk won’t help you.”
The first time an attack happened, she said she was watching a movie with a coworker and felt nothing but curiosity while the alarm sounded, bonging away with a computerized voice reminding everyone to take cover. She explained how the emotional impact came on slowly, which I thought made sense—the ebbing of shock and the flow of a first narrative about what happened. But that’s not what she meant. With each attack, she said, that emotional heft came on quicker and with more strength. She felt pressed upon by the law of averages, especially after a friend got killed in his office.
The view out the trailer window, with all the details the same, shifted immeasurably with each attack. And then she went back to work, watching the ducks and making sure everyone got paid.
“Between Here and There: Portraits of Veterans” is a two-media portrait project that I and Christopher will be brushing and carving into until we show the series in November at Good Gallery in Portland, Oregon. The series is funded through a generous grant from the Regional Arts and Culture Council.