Two wood caskets lie on the floor of the Foster Eastman Gallery in Vancouver. They’ve been gutted and stripped. Satellite images of Kandahar, Afghanistan cover their exteriors.
A group of men, mostly all veterans of the war in Afghanistan, gather around a piece of wood from one of the caskets, stenciling in military ranks onto its surface.
They talk about their time as soldiers, their families and their mental health. They talk about how much they miss the excitement of combat. They crack jokes.
The vets are using the caskets, purchased from a local supplier, to carve a 14-foot sculpture. It will be featured in a live play several of the vets are staging at the end of April on Granville Island.
“The purpose for it is to help bring the [men] together, share their stories, and to be able to heal,” Xwalactun says.
The dual art project, funded by the Movember Foundation, is designed to help the men deal with mental health issues and to advocate for improved treatment of veterans. It’s a combined effort between researchers at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver artist Foster Eastman and the Veterans Transition Network (VTN), a non-profit organization established at UBC that helps soldiers readapt to civilian life.
“The more the men talk about their experiences the more they’re able to process,” says Candace Marshall, the project’s clinical lead and a UBC PhD candidate in counselling psychology, who acts as moderator for the group’s discussions. “Men like to do things, so they’re talking and doing at the same time with this project, which can be less triggering.”
Studies show veterans are more prone to suicide than civilians. War-zone experiences can lead to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. 168 Canadian Armed Forces personnel committed suicide from 2004 to 2014, according to statistics from the Department of National Defence.
Marshall says the military’s high suicide rate is the reason why facilitating peer support for vets is so important.
“Having PTSD can be an isolating experience,” she says. “But there is a lifelong bond among the vets that’s very apparent. They consider each other brothers and because of that, they’re determined to prevent one of their own from taking their own lives.”
Dale Hamilton, 29, is one of the vets participating in the project. He completed one tour of duty in Kandahar from October 2009 to May 2010. He has PTSD and credits the Veterans Transition Network with saving his life.
“Eight or nine months after I retired from the Canadian Forces, I reached a crisis point,” he says. “I started seeing a counselor who recommended I join the veterans group. Once I joined, I realized almost immediately how much I really needed the support.”
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Coast Salish artist Rick Harry, also known as Xwalacktun, is teaching Hamilton and the other vets how to carve the sculpture; a tribute to the more than 40,000 Canadian men and women who served in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2011.
“The purpose for it is to help bring the [men] together, share their stories, and to be able to heal,” Xwalacktun says.
As for why caskets were chosen as the carving material, Eastman says they “represent the Canadian soldiers who returned home from the war in boxes.”
“Caskets symbolize death, but their transformation into this art piece symbolizes rebirth,” he says.
The play, titled Contact! Unload, is a series of vignettes that draws on the men’s collective experiences to examine the challenges veterans face after active duty. The vets aren’t the playwrights but they are consultants, vouching for the script’s authenticity. Some of the vets will also perform in the play, alongside Marshall and civilian actors.
Live theatre and woodcarving are creative ways to address PTSD and other mental health issues, Marshall says.
“This project allows the vets to connect with one another and to their community on a different level,” she says. “It helps them move forward in their lives.”