Once a Warrior: About the project

Once a Warrior

Participants in Once a Warrior explain more about the project and their involvement:

Servicemen and women who looked in detail at a British Museum exhibition about Native American warrior societies were inspired to paint, write poems, make a film, and sew blankets. One soldier turned the uniform he was wearing when he was shot in Afghanistan into a piece of art.

“This is a way to let the public know about the military mind. And what happens to us afterwards, when eventually we take off that uniform,” said John McDermott, who spent 27 years in the Royal Navy before founding Aftermath PTSD, a group which uses art to help people suffering from combat-related stress.

About the project

Serving soldiers and veterans living near RAMM found parallels with the ways and rituals of Native American warrior societies from the 19th century to the present. Their interviews were recorded, and made into a digital film, which also showcases the artworks they made as part of the project, called Once a Warrior.

Servicemen and women involved in the project – two serving soldiers, and seven other men and women with experience in the Army, Marines, Navy and Women’s Royal Air Force – found common ground in all sorts of practices. “There was definitely a connection between the army that I know, the modern army, and what we were learning about the Plains Indians,” said Captain Chris Gillespie, Queen’s Gallantry Medal and Bar (QGM), of 6 RIFLES, which trains Territorial Army volunteers for deployment to Afghanistan.

Whereas Native American warriors on the Plains used to decorate their clothing with patterns and human scalps to denote their society and status, today’s British regiments can be identified by their uniforms, mountain boots or special-issue knives. Wives of Plains warriors used to make them moccasins; now quilters’ groups sew blankets for the bereaved and injured.

A warrior might once have worn a bear-claw necklace to protect him from harm on the Plains, a vast area stretching from just above what is now the Canadian border down to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. Soldiers on the Once a Warrior film describe carrying a rosary, or family photographs, a pack of cards, and a beermat from a local brewery.

Lee French, a soldier, said guys still got together to tell battle stories. “We call it ‘swinging a lantern’, or ‘to spin a dit’ or ‘pull up a sandbag’.” But social media and TV news mean there is no longer a need for warriors to write down their exploits or draw combat scenes. “Because it’s there and it’s plain for everyone to see if you want to go and look at it,” he said.

And whereas Native American warriors were – and still are – welcomed home with dances and pride, Royal Marines welfare officer Lisa Robinson said there was a chasm between military and civilian in Britain because of the nature of the wars in which its services were engaged. “Life is going on as normal whilst guys are being killed, injured, having traumatic, life-changing experiences halfway across the world,” she said.

Without adequate support from the armed forces and the public, the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and trouble adjusting to civilian life is high. She said, “The role of community at all levels is vital in enabling our warriors who return from operational tours to reintegrate back into the family, community and society.”

“It breaks my heart thinking a young squaddie doesn’t feel comfortable wearing his uniform out on the High Street,” John McDermott said. “He’s not a politician, he’s just someone serving his country.”

According to John McDermott, soldiers lose a lifeline when they leave the services. His organisation, Aftermath PTSD, calculates that between 4,000 and 5,000 people are medically discharged from the armed forces every year in the United Kingdom. That’s on top of around 24,000 that McDermott says come to the end of their contracts and step on to civvy street.

Will Means, who started experiencing terrifying nightmares and flashbacks years after leaving the Royal Marines, said it helped him to write poetry. “If you express it through art, writing, drawing or poetry, then you’re giving it to people in a soluble form that they can digest easily,” he said.

The film, Once a Warrior – common bonds of combat, is on YouTube.