Jaeson Parsons would wake up every day in Ar Ramadi, Iraq, wondering who would be blown up next.
The U.S. Army medic from Chicago saw burns, liquified insides and holes where limbs used to be. Then he had to repair the damage.
“It’s hard to explain what it feels like to always be on edge and thinking ‘When I leave the post today am I going to die?’” he said.
“For me it was always the thought of ‘OK, who’s going to get hurt today? What am I going to have to see that’s awful? What kind of mess is this battle going to make of people that I’m going to figure out how to patch up?’”
Parsons, now a student at West Virginia University, saw many of his friends and colleagues survive their horrific wounds.
But some wounds don’t heal as surely.
When Parsons came home in 2009 after four years of service with a medical discharge for back problems, he discovered his own wounds.
He had been so excited to return home. But he was too on edge, too isolated. The freedom he had sought left him disoriented. Crowds panicked him.
He still got his “bell rattled” remembering how his armored car constantly shook from explosions. He survived his stint working in lead vehicles that cleared the way of explosives for the rest of the unit. But he was still afraid.
He was treated for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but he still closed off from other people. He felt like a different guy from the man who married his wife at the start of his service. He didn’t want to tell her what he’d seen.
“Most people don’t want to hear about the terrible things that happen to people after they get hurt,” Parsons said. “I don’t want to scare my wife, or I don’t want to talk to her about the awful things that I’ve seen because I don’t even like the fact that I’ve seen them.”
He eventually entered a psychiatric ward where he had a mental break down.
It was the knowledge that he wasn’t homeless like some of the other patients at the hospital and the help of his doctor, wife and family that pulled him out of himself. It was also the suggestion that he find a hobby.
A soldier finds help in pictures
So Parsons turned to art.
He launched The Graffiti of War Project with his wife, Melissa, and a fellow veteran, Jason Deckman. They gather photos of impromptu paintings and messages created by American soldiers at war and are compiling them on a website and in a coffee table book. The project is meant to build a bridge between the civilian and soldier as well as raise funds for a variety of PTSD therapies.
The art and scrawled writings in the photos depict love, hope, pride, sarcasm and prayer. They live on helmets, blast walls, the sides of latrines, bombs and tanks.
When Parsons served from 2005-2009, he saw a lot of graffiti. The painting he remembers most during his time in Iraq was displayed outside the dining facility (DFAC) near Fallujah.
“It’s got a sketch of Will Ferrell when he was playing Ron Burgundy from ‘Anchorman,’ and it said ‘You stay classy, Iraq,’” he said. “I used to love seeing that every time I got out of DFAC because it was like a little piece of home.”
One of his favorites of the submissions he’s received is a painting of a lighthouse along with the words “From sea to shining sea” housed in an ammunition supply room.
“It struck me because it’s like that person that was in that ammo dump there all day long handing bullets to people to go off to war it’s like they took their little piece of the United States and put it right there so it kind of brought a little piece of home to them,” he said.
“I really like that shot.”
While serving in Iraq, Parsons told his buddies that someone should collect the graffiti into a coffee table book. Then it became more urgent as he needed something to keep him going.
But he was inspired to act by a WVU English lecturer, Jason Kapcala.
“He was there for me in times that I was going through some pretty raw stuff,” Parsons said. “And to write and realize that this is something I can use to get through some of my issues with PTSD I don’t think he knew that but without him I don’t think I would have started on this project.”
Most of the proceeds from the photo book will go to several programs, including Camo Music, a group that uses music therapy to treat PTSD and physical injuries; Give An Hour, a network of mental health professionals who give of their time to treat those with PTSD; Exit 12 Dance Co., a New York company that promotes awareness of PTSD and uses dance as therapy; and The Graffiti of War Foundation, which will be forming an art therapy program in Morgantown in the next few months
In partnership with Give An Hour, The Graffiti of War Foundation is exploring ways to offer free virtual therapy through a secure Internet site for active military, veterans and their families who may not have access to therapy nearby or who may be separated from each other by great distances.
The road to war
Parsons had been the director of institutional sales at a brokerage firm when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.
He lost friends who had worked in the global financial center that housed firms like Cantor Fitzgerald and Morgan Stanley.
“I felt like it was my turn to put in the work for my country,” Parsons said. “So I put in my two-weeks’ notice they all thought I was having a mid-life crisis a little early and joined the military.
“I’m proud of it. It’s something that nobody can take away from me.”
Even with his dedication to The Graffiti of War Project, Parsons hasn’t completely integrated into a peacetime world.
“Crowds still are issues with me,” he said. “I don’t mind going out in crowds too much if it’s me by myself, but if my family’s there I feel like I have to protect them so it causes me panic attacks and causes me a whole bunch of stress.”
He brought those feelings with him as a 30-year-old student to WVU.
It was the classes of 250 students that frightened him most. And it was his small University 101 class for veterans that eased his mind.
“It was kind of like being back in the military again,” he said. “It brought back that camaraderie.”
Between the veterans’ class and the Veterans of WVU, Parsons has been able to find the support he needed to pursue his education in finance. He had to take off the 2010 spring semester for medical treatment, but he returned.
“I think it was the way WVU treats its veterans that brought me back instead of studying somewhere else,” he said.
Parsons, who resides in Clarksburg, W.Va., traveled this summer to the Middle East to collect photos and stories surrounding wartime graffiti and spread awareness of the project. There, he met fellow West Virginians as he embedded with a West Virginia National Guard unit. When all U.S. troops have pulled out of Iraq, scheduled for the end of this year, Parsons will also focus on gathering graffiti from Afghanistan.
Just as seeing these photos has connected him to his past, he hopes they will spark that conversation between soldiers and their communities, creating the bonds of support that one so desperately needs and the other is so willing to provide.
“There’s a lot of heart and soul and emotion that goes into some of the art that they’re creating, which is an outlet for them,” he said. “Maybe they come back from a mission and one of their buddies gets killed. They’re able to memorialize a friend by scratching on a wall or something, and it releases that pent up emotion.”
By Diana Mazzella
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