Once a Warrior: In art and words

Once a Warrior

Servicemen and women living near RAMM were invited to respond in art and words to Warriors of the Plains, a visiting British Museum exhibition about Native American warrior societies from the 19th century to the present. The veterans and serving soldiers involved on the Once a Warrior project were inspired to paint, write poems, make a film, and sew blankets.

The group’s artworks are showcased on a digital film, alongside their explanations in recorded interviews. The reflections of people with recent military experience provide insight into the rituals and codes of honour that have guided combat across centuries, continents and cultures.

Funded by Arts Council England, Once a Warrior is a RAMM partnership with Aftermath PTSD, a group offering arts involvement to people suffering combat-related stress.

The paintings, poems, and other artworks created for Once a Warrior are displayed on the YouTube film. This is just a glimpse of each person’s art and words and the thinking behind it.

A long time after the war shirt and film: I Am Not A God. Brian Power, former Royal Navy, artist and filmmaker

Brian Power with ‘A long time after the war’ shirt

“The film I Am Not A God is a story of how someone comes to terms with his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The story is about five tasks taken on the road to recovery. The theme of the story is the search for PTSD. It is a domestic condition hidden in plain sight and mostly ignored. The hunt by the five “brothers” or parts of me is for a hidden beast. Each one has a different end.

“The last brother returns whole after he and his spirit self have located and skinned their quarry, the hide of which was used to make the accompanying piece, A Long Time After The War Shirt.

“Like the Plains Indians, I have taken its power and made a war shirt. It was constructed using only scissors, a punch and a hammer.”

You can watch I Am Not a God on Youtube.

Paintings by Michelle Boots, former Royal Army Veterinary Corps and Royal Army Ordnance Corps, artist

Michelle Boots with her paintings

Bite the Bullet. “This artwork reflects the American suppression of the Native peoples who had no choice about what had happened to them.”

Fallout. “This is like a curtain where there’s utter confusion in combat and no one can see what’s happening. That same confusion exists elsewhere in our world.”

Iron House. “‘Iron house’ is a Native American term for prison. Large numbers of Native Americans have been sent to jail with long sentences for the slightest of misdemeanours.”

Ghost Walk. “Native American warriors volunteer to serve in the US Army and fight for their country but little is put in place to safeguard their heritage.”

Unknown Tribal Blankets. Diane Hughes, former Women’s Royal Air Force (WRAF) Fighter Controller, artist and art historian

“Reading about the Plains Indians brought immediately to mind a remark that Jeremy Paxman made a long time ago about the military being an unknown tribe because people now rarely have experience of Second World War national service and so people don’t know very much about the military….

“I thought, ‘Right, I’ll make some unknown tribal blankets, as in blanket of meaning.’ …. They might just enlighten people a little by looking at some of the values that we have and the consequences of serving your country as a military person.”

Every bullet has a name on it: this one happened to have mine. Lee French, Warrant Officer Class 2, RIFLES, serving soldier

Lee French with his artwork

This work was made from the uniform the soldier was wearing when he was injured in Afghanistan 2008. It includes medical evacuation tags, bullet and other shrapnel removed in surgery.

“It’s pretty much an image of me after being shot and the sudden realisation that it was actually happening to me, hence the big ZAP number along the top (ZAP number being how individuals are identified over a radio). Linked with how fragile life is and how easy it is to extinguish and… wondering… whether my time was up, hence the grey sky on an otherwise sunny day in Afghanistan.”

Captain Chris Gillespie, Queen’s Gallantry Medal and Bar (QGM), 6 RIFLES, serving officer

Chris Gillespie participated in the Once a Warrior project

“I found the connection [with Plains warrior societies] much easier to make than I expected…. I wouldn’t really call myself a warrior, but now my view of a warrior is different. It is not somebody who goes screaming in to kill as many people as he can and is… the brave person…. There is more background to it, more status, ethos, spiritualism, regimental history….

“I think that is perhaps what makes a warrior, not his immediate, fearful deeds but who he is and where he comes from, what he or she takes in their hearts as important to them for their military life.”

Common Language. John McDermott, former Royal Navy, artist and founder of Aftermath PTSD

John McDermott, founder of Aftermath PTSD

“One of the best aspects of being in the services for me… was the opportunity to travel to many countries – 54 at the last count – and I’m certainly not defined by the conflicts I’ve been in….

“The defining aspect for me was the education I got of meeting people from different cultures and what I found… was what connected us rather than what separated us…. We’ve all got the same ability to empathise, be compassionate, to love, to survive, to progress in life…. Cross the oceans, no matter which way you go, people generally… are all the same.”

Dark Dreams. Will Means, former Royal Marines, poet

One of Will Means’ poems

“I left the Marines in 1981 and I’ve worked all my life since then…. [It] was only when I stopped work that I found the memories started and as they started coming back they got worse and more vivid. Then they started visiting me at night in my dreams and I started having daytime flashbacks. I’ve actually seen dead people looking at me through my window and these things become really scary.

“The power of being able to express myself through poetry… [takes] away the pain of trying to explain the depth of what happened. Rather than reliving it, you’re giving it to people in a soluble form they can digest more easily.”

Tribal Jacket. Richard Rochester, former Army and Royal Marines, visual artist and manager of veterans’ support services at St Loye’s Foundation

Richard Rochester with the tribal jacket he created

“Colours are really important. Every unit will have its own colours and… whatever unit you’re in, you’ll probably know the history of the colours. And the colours are… a set of flags that you carried into battle and… sometimes people died to protect….

“It’s not really a tradition of our country to decorate… your clothing. I find it interesting to think, well, if we did… how would one approach it, … trying to get into the headspace of the people as they were preparing for… difficult work and trying to produce something that’s going to help you.”