When we least expect it clarity, compassion and understanding sneak up and slap us in the head. Moments like this are hard to define, lacking framework of anticipation or reference they vanish in the blink of an eye. We recognize it changed us but need to digest it for a day of two.
Yesterday was one of those days. I ran an event at the Foster Eastman Gallery in Vancouver, a fundraiser for Veterans Transition Network (VTN). Having many military events under my belt, I arrived void of the slightest inkling this cocktail party would enrich my core. Expecting to see some familiar faces, looking forward to a new venue, interested in the art – I walked inside and was greeted by Foster.
I’ve never given much credence to auras but if Foster Eastman has one it radiates pure joy. Instantly at ease – dare I say under a spell powerful enough to wash your troubles away, my attention turned to the gallery walls. Blissfully unaware Foster Eastman was the artist , not simply a name on the door – I begged those walls to stop distracting me.
Setting up the party, the next hour allowed time to absorb my surroundings. Little by little, layers of comprehension set in. Foster Eastman wanted to honor Canadian soldiers – inspiration became the brainchild of his mural project, Lest We Forget CANADA! a poignant installation covering an entire wall. 162 paper mache panels, each with the name of a fallen soldier and how they died. The first layer of each panel are pages torn from military “pams” – pamphlets with instructions on hand to hand combat or how to carry a wounded soldier to safety.
His mural now the centerpiece for Veterans Transition Network fundraising. VTN is a non profit organization supporting “transition” from military to civilian life. A three month program, with support, counseling and coping mechanisms for PTSD sufferers, employment and education strategies or simply a shoulder to lean on.
Eastman’s multi -media vision of IED explosions play out along the gallery walls. Cheeky, layered, practically sculpted compositions of individual ketchup packages stamped Afghanistan form Canadian flags beneath thick lacquer. Canvases literally blown up, peppered with rusty nails – uneven edges, imperfections, nasty fall out – all coated in impossibly thick lacquer.
By now a few young men have arrived – it takes a moment to realize they’re soldiers. Dressed in civilian clothing, good looking, cheerful – about the same age as my children. One carries a few boxes of packaged military meals, opening one and carefully displaying the contents on a table. I start a conversation with another who arrived with a dog wearing a vest reading “service dog in training-do not pet”. He tells me he’s been training it for 3 months and has had the dog for 5 years. Like an idiot I blurt out ” wow-it’s going to be tough to give him up”. His matter of fact response was “I’m training him for me-I’m the one with PTSD” The dog knows to walk in front of him in crowds, forcing people to move aside – he doesn’t do well in crowds. The dog knows to check a room before this young man enters and can sense oncoming panic attacks. When speeches began I learned this soldier was the subject of one of Eastman’s pieces – a mural of soldiers carrying the coffin of his close friend.
We’ve all heard of post traumatic stress – I can’t begin to imagine what these young men witnessed or form any reference point to the reality of war. I do know that meeting these young people gave it a face. My heart went out to them but it wasn’t pity, it was pride and gratitude. As Foster Eastman said “Where is our Canadian patriotism? Do we not want to talk about it? Oh, I don’t believe in war. Well, nobody believes in war”.