Exhibit of Ohio veterans’ art depicts war through their eyes

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Raine McMullen pushes certain chapters of the 10 months she spent in Afghanistan to the back of her mind.

There are things she saw and heard and experienced while deployed there that she doesn’t like to talk about. But the children? She will never forget them and is always eager to share their stories.

“They were so curious of the American soldiers,” said McMullen, who spent six years with the Army Reserve’s 412th Civil Affairs Battalion, based at the Defense Supply Center Columbus in Whitehall. “And they were especially curious of me because I was the only female on my whole base.”

While deployed in 2011 to Ghazni province, she carried an inexpensive camera and took dozens of photographs, many of them of the local children. Now, a series of four of her photos are part of an exhibit, “Art Inspired by the Front Lines,” on display through Sunday in the lobby of the Vern Riffe Center downtown.

In addition to photographs from McMullen and others, the exhibit includes pencil drawings, watercolors and digital paintings. The work of 17 Ohio veterans is featured.

Also among the pieces is a life-size bronze sculpture that depicts a soldier kneeling in mourning and respect before a fallen comrade’s gear.

Another veteran drew a picture called “Forgotten” that contrasts the sadness of an unknown soldier in a wooden coffin in an otherwise empty room — mourned only by his dog, who rests beside the casket — with another he drew that shows the brotherhood of three soldiers in battle gear linking arms in support. That one is titled “Not Forgotten.”

Many of the works are photographs, including some taken by Ken Williamson of Cincinnati. He deployed as a photographer and news correspondent during the Vietnam War and has three photos in the exhibit.

In one, a Vietnamese boy peers up at Williamson’s camera with the wide-eyed innocence of youth. His small hands, though, are wrinkled like an old man’s.

During an interview promoting the exhibit, Williamson told organizers that he took the photos of the children at an orphanage near Pleiku in the central part of Vietnam. He said he photographed many children because “I think they were the most affected in the war.”

Eileen Corson, spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Veterans Services, said the state has worked with the Ohio Arts Council to bring the first-of-its kind exhibit for the department to the Riffe Center.

“It really gives people the ability to peer through the veterans’ eyes a little bit, to see what they saw,” Corson said.

McMullen, a 29-year-old full-time student studying interior design and psychology at Ohio State University, said she learned of the opportunity to submit artwork for consideration in the exhibit from the university’s Office of Military and Veterans Services.

The photographs were taken in 2011, but the images of the children have never faded from her mind.

In one titled “Looking Up,” a young Afghan boy stares right into her camera with an expression of awe. In another, “Looking Through,” a child peers at her from behind his father.

The job of McMullen and her comrades in Afghanistan was to visit villages and find out what the villagers most needed, whether it be food, water, shelter or a school.

Whenever the soldiers met with locals, the women and children would huddle in one room, and McMullen stayed with them. She couldn’t speak the language, and her interpreter couldn’t help because, as a man, he wasn’t permitted to address the women.

Yet somehow, despite the language barrier, they would all communicate.

“I would just huddle with them, just be present to let them know to not be afraid,” she said. “I would give the children jewelry, like cheap dollar-store plastic stuff, but they loved it. I wanted them to know I was not the enemy.”

She would sometimes see the same kids months later when the troops passed through again. It always tugged at her heart if she saw any of the kids still wearing their bracelets.

McMullen often wonders what happened to the children. She hopes it was good. She said that when people see her photographs, she wants them to hope so, too.

“The children are innocent, so unaware of the wrongdoing of some of the adults around them,” she said. “I want people to realize that not everything about Afghanistan is bad, that not all of the people are bad. We cannot blame the children.”


Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com