Veteran Artist Wants to Shape Public Perception of Afghanistan War with His Arts

When Reuben Mabry was in the military, his major duty was an Apache AH-64D helicopter pilot. He went to Afghanistan twice, in 2012 and 2014, each for one year.

Today, he paints often about his experience as a solider.

“Painting to me, it’s a vehicle to be able to communicate you feeling or emotions,” said Mabry. “I do have a purpose behind why I paint in the way I do, because, for me, the military has both positive and negative impacts.”

President Donald Trump recently sent more U.S. troop to Afghanistan, bringing the total number of American soldiers in the country to 14,000.

Growing up in a military family, Mabry said his biggest impetus for him initially joining the military was his dad and 9/11.

“I am a military brat. My dad was a helicopter pilot… some of it is to follow my dad’s footsteps” said Mabry. “And 9/11 was a big influence as well for me wanting to go into the military and help serve in that capacity.”

Mabry’s dog tags, fly jacket and title tags

Mabry joined the military as commission officer after two years of flight school. Last year when his time was up, he made his decision to leave the military; it wasn’t a good fit for him.

“I was thinking about doing it 20 years and retiring. But after my last deployment in Afghanistan… it was causing me a lot of distress, and, overall, a lot of mental stress,” said Mabry. “Finally I made the decision that it was better for me mentally to separate from the military and to go back to school, to do something that I genuinely enjoy doing.”

Major events in Afghanistan War highlights. Designed by Jintong Wu.

Mabry applied for the Master of Fine Art program at UNC-Chapel Hill and was one of the few people selected from more than 300 applicants.

John Blanco, first-year M.F.A., said that Mabry was a thoughtful person when they first met.

“(He’s a) competitive thinker” said Blanco. “Someone who considers his thoughts and words before he speaks.”

Now Mabry hangs his dog tags and one of his fly suits he used to wear on the wall of his studio.

“It’s both symbolic and also a stimulus that reminds me of certain experiences I had when I was in Afghanistan,” said Mabry.

The 9-foot long East Asian watercolor painting that he recently finished is a panoramic view into the military life in Afghanistan.

Mabry’s painting. Photo by Jintong Wu

“The goal is to draw the viewers in, and to get them start to thinking about subject matters that are related to wasteful spending of the military to child rape that is happening in Afghanistan, to explosions that are going on, almost on a daily basis, in Afghanistan,” said Mabry.

Mabry said he wants to reflect on his experience in the military and brings public the awareness of issues like veteran’s mental health problem.

“Because we elect people that use the military in certain manners, so whenever the military is used and those individual in the military has to face certain challenges, I think it’s important for us as a general public to understand what is going on with those individuals,” said Mabry. “I am just giving you my story, so that you can see it from one perspective and be able to understand it a little bit better.”

John DeKemper, first-year M.F.A. and Mabry’s classmate, said that Mabry’s works are as strong and unique as his experience.

“He used his own experience and identity as a nexus for these two different conversations: a stylistic background relating to his heritage and a conceptual framework that comes directly from his experience in the military,” said DeKemper. “He married these geographically and historically disparate parts like the whole was meant to be; it’s very impressive and affecting.”

Mabry’s painting. Photo by Jintong Wu.

According to New York Times, by 2011, more than two million solider was sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. More than 6,000 personnel were killed and 44000 were wounded in action. One fifth of the returning solider suffer from post-traumatic stress, major depression or traumatic brain injury.

Veterans like Reuben are learning to readjust themselves into the society after their intense and almost secular experiences in the military.

“I am still in a transition stage of getting used to this type of environment, getting used to college life, because I was out of college for over 8 years,” said Mabry. “Understanding certain cultural norms compared to where I was at previously is a little bit different.

“But right now I mean, I am glad to be where I am at,” Mabry continued. “I am actually pretty happy.”