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'Combat art' chronicles soldiers' suffering, resolve

Thursday - 9/8/2011, 10:08am  ET

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Sgt. Jason Ross is artist Victor Juhasz's most memorable subject. The young Marine lost both his legs when an IED exploded in Afghanistan. (Photo courtesy of The Joe Bonham Project)
  • Gallery: (4 images)

Alicia Lozano, wtop.com

WASHINGTON -- Marine Lance Cpl. William Kyle Carpenter was 21 when he lost an eye, most of his teeth and the use of his right arm from a grenade blast in Afghanistan. He threw himself in front of that grenade to save his best friend, and it's taken about 25 surgeries and 100 hours of physical therapy at Bethesda Naval Hospital for Carpenter to recover. His family calls him their "miracle."

Carpenter is one of Michael D.Fay's most memorable subjects. Fay, a retired Marine, has been sketching recovering soldiers at Bethesda and Walter Reed Army Medical Center since 2006. What started as a sort of hobby has turned into an artistic movement, complete with shows in New York and interest from the Smithsonian in D.C.

It is the advent of something that Fay says has been missing from the public eye since Sept. 11: combat art. And The Joe Bonham Project is at the forefront.

Started by Fay and a handful of artists in 2006, the project documents service members as they recover from sometimes horrific war injuries. Missing limbs, burned flesh and resilient souls are all par for the course.

"You're overwhelmed with the authenticity and the genuineness," Fay says. "These guys are salt of the earth. You come out of the experience more transformed than them."

Artist Victor Juhasz is equally impressed by his subjects.

"You can't find any self-pity," he says. "They're just in it and they're making due with what's been dealt to them."

For Juhasz, an illustrator and former courtroom artist, the experience is intensely personal. His son has been in the Marines for 10 years. That he could be one of those fathers in the waiting room is never lost on him. Instead, when he's sketching soldiers, Juhasz just tries to draw what he sees.

As for his son's safety?

"That kind of reflection happens after the fact," he says.

It's no coincidence that all of the Joe Bonham artists have direct relationships to the military. Fay was a Marine for 20 years. Juhasz and Jeffrey Fisher are Marine fathers. Robert Bates is a lance corporal, and so on.

Establishing a rapport is the most important thing when sketching these soldiers, Fay says. Most are brutally honest about their experiences and not at all shy about discussing what happened to them. Their frankness can be jarring, but that is the "wonderful, mysterious thing about art," according to Fay.

"Some of these wounds are horrendous," he says. "On the one hand, you're drawing the absence of some major body parts and the destruction of handsome faces."

But once the sores are healed, something wholly different remains.

"It's more the human spirit that comes flooding through," Fay says. "How many body parts are left has nothing to do with being human."

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Sgt. Jason Ross lies on his back, pillows supporting his upper half. His lower half is covered by a white blanket, tubes like tentacles where his legs used to be. It's a gruesome image until you consider the look in his eye -- steely, determined and maybe even annoyed. He looks ready to get out of there, but he is a long way from recovery.

Juhasz met Ross in Bethesda after the Marine returned legless from Afghanistan. Ross was on a daily patrol with the Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit when an IED went off. Dirt and soil settled into his muscle tissue, complicating an already devastating injury. One coma and several surgeries later, Ross was back to playing his banjo.

"I just shook my head in awe, in just amazement, at his resolve," Juhasz says. "Literally it was his resiliency that kept him alive."

Ross was one of the most extreme patients at Bethesda, a surgeon told Juhasz. His parents started a daily blog to document his unexpected recovery, and allowed Juhasz to visit several times.

Ross was always very open about what happened to him, Juhasz remembers. It was early in the Marine's recuperation when Juhasz and another illustrator, Jeffrey Fisher, started coming by. They would sit while doctors came in and out, sometimes with good news and sometimes with bad news. The soldier listened with "calm intensity" to evaluations, and then would return to watching TV or chatting with visitors. He hated the Academy Award-winning movie "The Hurt Locker" and couldn't wait to get a haircut.

Getting to know Ross is what the Joe Bonham experience is all about for Juhasz. He was never in the armed forces, so this is his contribution.

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