March of 2018 marked 15 years since US and Allied forces entered into IRAQ for what would later become known as Operation Iraqi Freedom. Since then, the United States has lost over 4,530 brave souls to the conflict within the borders of Iraq. During the first nine years of the operation, Army veteran Don Wesley kept a visual count of the US soldiers lost in Iraq by using his skills as a painter to express both his grief and honor for the fallen.
Started in 2003, each one of the nine paintings represents that year's losses in total. Each bird represents one of the soldiers who died during that year. However, the story that is not told in these paintings, is the losses of Iraqi people to the conflict. It pains one to imagine that possibly 200,000 or more civilians and guard soldiers were killed in the conflict as well.
"I want to tell you we appreciate your painting of starlings representing our fallen soldiers in Iraq"
"I was urged to visit your website by a friend. Your painting is amazing and passionate and so beautiful."
"Your painting disputes Richard Serra's comment that Art is purposely useless."
"I am especially touched by your painting representing those who have transitioned because of this war and I was deeply touched. Your work is exquisite and birds are so beautiful in their own right. Using them to represent us and our soul's journey was especially beautiful to me and I wanted to let you know that. Your site tells me many others feel the same way. Keep painting. Your work is beautiful."
"And Counting saddens me deeply and their inner spiral up is endless and couldn't be shown another way without darkening the entire canvas and losing the truth of it all."
"I am Brazilian and I am looking forward for some changes in the world. Congratulations on your painting and continue with your beautiful work. It is what makes our lives worth something, doing our part in this world. The UN, where I work, fully agrees with your work. Let's have strength."
"I'm writing just to say I saw your painting named "And Counting" and liked it very much. My eyes filled with tears, over the "soul birds" losing their lives. Really good piece of work."
"Your paintings are wonderful and I am so happy to have had the opportunity to view them on your site."
"It is wonderful that in our country you can express your frustrations through your art work in hopes of gathering support. There are many countries you would not be allowed to say and do the things you believe are important."
"Wow! Thank you for sharing your art and your soul. This is a beautiful tribute to our fallen heroes."
"Thanks for your beautiful work."
"Great idea for a memorial work... hope you don't have to make it a diptych or triptych!"
"And Counting" is most impressive... a conceptually strong and timely painting. However, I hope the painting is finished soon. Nonetheless, it deserves to be viewed by a larger audience."
"Your graphic has much more impact now, and of course every day I hear of more deaths I shake my head in dismay."
"Your maturation as an artist is quite evident. "And Counting" has had quite an impact. Very moving. A sad subject brought to light through wings. As Emily Dickinson once said, "hope is the thing with feathers," which resonates with your theme; each bird is not only representative of a loss, but something higher than that."
Over the years, I have always felt honored when people have told me how this series of paintings has made them feel, and I always thank them for that honor. I also have heard many opinions about the series over the years, and welcome those thoughts as well. When art transcends the immediate image and gets people thinking and sharing their thoughts, I feel it has served a greater purpose."
Birds. Swirling in the sky.
Each in flight towards the heavens above.
Each one representing a brave soldier.
Each one to be respected and remembered forever.
These canvases tell a truth in so many ways, about so many things in our world from 2003-2011, before that period, and even after. But that wasn't why I originally started painting them. I started this series out of a single solitary mission, to honor the soldiers who gave their lives so we could continue on.
It was March 21, 2003. The day before, the United States had begun a new mission in Iraq. At the time, I was working on a totally unrelated canvas consisting of two big branches and some starlings sitting on each of the branches chattering across to each other. It was to be a continuation of my series of starlings and was going to be the backdrop for a grand portrait of a starling, zoomed in close. While working on the background of the tree and birds, I was painting one bird coming in for a landing on one of the branches. During my lunch break from painting that day, I found out that we had just lost our first soldier in Iraq. Details of the soldier's death were murky at first. But that night I painted out the tree and seated birds with a dusty, and swirling yellow sky, and left just the single flying bird. For me and that canvas, that single bird now represented that soldier. I would later read in detail that 2nd Lt. Therrel (Shane) Childers was our first soldier to lose their life in what would be a nine year engagement known as Operation Iraqi Freedom.
For the next year, I painted a bird on the canvas every time I read of another soldier's death.
Soon, after the first painting was shared with the public, this work left my own studio and became a backdrop to a much larger discourse. While being shown in public, this series had people arguing, then discussing, then just standing in awe. People who get the series, get me. These paintings can sometimes draw even the most cynical to their knees in tears. I was on my own knees from time to time, begging for this whole thing to go away, for my fellow soldiers to be brought home safe from the hell that was being described in reports and press releases. Especially in 2004, it seemed like every day, I was bringing down my paints and brushes to the gallery to add more soldiers, taking time to remember each one. Admittedly, it was a very tough thing to stick with and stay positive about. But I kept up my end of the deal and kept painting, always striving to stay connected to what was happening.
There was a day that I realized these paintings were doing something useful beyond documenting our losses as a nation. They were also connecting people. Throughout the events and painting of this series, I learned a lot about our nation's opinion of the war, and how we saw our soldiers there. I also found out a lot about how a work of art can leave your hands and fall into the hands of the viewer and their interpretations. Never before had I seen my work touch so many people so many ways.
And if you are still reading this page at this point, I want to thank you too, from the bottom of my heart. I'm honored.
The original paintings for this series are intended for public display only and are not for sale as original works of art. Each painting is six feet wide and comes with custom hanger so the painting hangs away from the wall, extending the paintings into the viewer's space ever so slightly. If your organization is interested in exhibiting the series, please contact me for more information.
Bunker Labs is a nationwide network of local chapters all geared towards helping veteran-owned, and family of veterans, startup their business ideas. Many veterans will have been thriving in a teamwork-oriented roles just weeks prior to embarking on their solo mission to build all that back around them for their own company. It's a tall order. At Bunker Labs they gladly accept community partnerships of all kinds, prior service or not too help veteran funders get the running start they need to succeed. This is a rock solid foundational stop to make for veterans starting businesses and for existing businesses to partner up with them in their growth. Everybody wins.
Team RWB's mission is to enrich the lives of America's veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity. I recently joined RWB as a volunteer and look forward to helping veterans in the Puget Sound region stay connected with the world they love. One of our new friends we met through this program is hiking the PCT this summer and I'l join him for a chunk of the Washington miles as he comes through. Team RWB has chapters nationwide in almost all cities I can think of. You'll see our red shirts with the white and blue eagle on it at many running and fitness events.
These are just a couple of the organizations I participate in. There are so many new groups coming online to help veterans and surviving families with kick starts and running starts to education and business opportunities. If you know of some good ones, please share them with us and I'l add them to this list. Thank you - Don Wesley