Art Exhibit at Museum of the Marine Corps Reveals Raw Realities of War

Drawing from the Joe Bonham Project (Facebook)

Some artists believe their graphic depictions of severely wounded warriors is something everyone should see.

The wounded warriors in those images agree.

"They want people to see that there's still a human there, and they still have hopes and dreams and that they will go on," said Gwenn Adams, public affairs director of the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Triangle.

The Joe Bonham Project contains 110 sometimes-shocking sketches and paintings of U.S. service members who were seriously injured in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. The new exhibit will be on display through the end of March at the Marine Corps museum.

"Some of them are very raw pieces, and they're not always easy to look at," said Adams.

Adams said the wounded service members allowed the drawings to be done at their hospital bedsides, to give people an opportunity to see beyond their scars and beyond their wounds.

"It's very emotional. I'm torn," said John Witt, a combat artist from Yorktown Heights, N.Y. "I encountered a number of wounded in Vietnam, dying and dead. I can't imagine in these situations, facing one of these chaps and asking to sketch them."

Suzan Wallace, an adjunct art teacher at Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, N.C., said the exhibit was, "emotional, passionate, heart-wrenching and raw."

"We can replicate it in some way in Hollywood movies, which you see with dramatic background music and colors and red blood and all the excitement," Wallace said. "But that right there, in that gallery, is much more personal, and it gets to you."

The exhibit is named for Joe Bonham, the central character in Dalton Trumbo's 1938 novel, "Johnny Got His Gun."

In that novel, World War I soldier Bonham is seriously wounded by an artillery blast. Although he survives, he has no arms, legs, eyes, ears, mouth or tongue. Bonham's mind functions perfectly, however, leaving the soldier a prisoner in his own body.

According to the exhibit's literature, "Bonham's ultimate goal is to have himself placed in a glass box and toured around the county as a living example of the realities of war and the victorious transcendence of the human spirit. His wish is denied and Bonham lives out his days alone and forgotten."

Retired Marine Corps Chief Warrant Officer Michael Fay, the creator of the Joe Bonham Project, wants to remember soldiers like Bonham, and the exhibit reflects his commitment to keeping modern-day warriors in the public's eye.

"This is a new generation of Joe Bonhams," said Fay. "Today, service members are surviving from wounds that would have proved fatal years ago."

Fay, himself a renowned combat artist, created the collection with sketches he and other combat artists accumulated during visits to military hospitals, including Walter Reed National Military Center, Bethesda Naval Hospital and Hunter Holmes McGuire Veterans Administration Medical Center in Richmond.

"These guys would have never survived in other wars," Fay said. "They are past places that previous warriors have ever gone."

Fay credits the survival rate of today's warriors to highly skilled medical corpsmen in the field, modern-day field hospitals, exceptional military doctors and fast, modern aircraft used in medical evacuations.

"It's not like the television show 'MASH,' with a bunch of guys sitting around making moonshine. That's Hollywood," said Fay.

Many of those sketched for the collection were victims of fierce firefights or survivors of improvised explosive device blasts. While many service members declined to be sketched, those who did were volunteers.

"Not all made themselves available, but many did," said Fay.

In addition to American artists, Canadian and Australian artists contributed to the Bonham collection as well, providing sketches of the wounded they accumulated at in-patient shock trauma facilities.

Combat artist Jim Fairfax, of Greenville, N.C., spent two years in Vietnam during the height of that war. He operated out of a small art studio in Da Nang.

Fairfax is one of the contributors to the Joe Bonham Project, and knows many of the other artists involved. He agrees that many of the images are hard to look at, but said it's a story that needs to be told.

"It's truthful, it tells the story of the real sacrifice of war," Fairfax said. "It's very real, and it's the kind of thing I believe the public needs to see."

While in Vietnam, Fairfax painted a full-color piece he named "Triage," after he accompanied ground forces into battle. Following the firefight, Fairfax followed the soldiers as they were evacuated from the battlefield to triage units, then on to a hospital. He followed several of the men to the military mortuary.

Fairfax said he does not see a striking difference in the level of injuries between what he witnessed in Vietnam and what is occurring today in the Global War on Terrorism.

"Not when it comes to this story, there's no difference," said Fairfax. "The story is the same, and it has been the same, and it will be the same."

This article is written by James Scott Baron from The Free Lance-Star, Fredericksburg, Va. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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