CHICAGO — It’s pretty easy to miss the non-descript building on Chicago’s North Side. But one floor up is the home of the National Veterans Art Museum and the 100 Faces of War Experience on display.
These are portraits of the men and women who went to war — a cross section of the daring, devoted and even disfigured who heard the call. Each painting is accompanied by a personal statement which is meant to make you linger.
“If we want people to understand the true cost of war, it’s on us to tell those stories,” said Elizabeth O’Herrin.
O’Herrin was once Sergeant O’Herrin who assembled bombs for F16s in the Persian Gulf and Iraq. She says she’s had trouble talking about her experiences but that writing was therapeutic.
“I felt that it came from the heart,” O’Herrin told me.
She wrote that she’s proud of her service but added this: “That doesn’t change the fact that I contributed – however indirectly – to human beings vanishing from the earth in a moment of sheer agony.”
At his studio in Amherst, Massachusetts the artist Matt Mitchell worked on the project for nine years.
“There’s a lot of people walking around whose lives have been altered by uncontrollable memories from these wars,” Mitchell said. “I wanted to convey the weight of war, but I left that in the hands of the people I was working with.”
Army nurse Kevin McGurk was portrait number 100.
“Being the last guy to help close the door is significant for me,” McGurk told me. “Coming off a fresh rotation to Afghanistan as we wind the war down in that country kind of symbolizes to me that hopefully it’s closing that chapter in that war.”
“I think it is part of a veteran’s responsibility to try to help society understand that those consequences are real and that just because not everyone can feel them doesn’t mean they’re not happening,” said O’Herrin.
But we can feel them here on each canvas as the faces of war stare back at us.