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Veterans find that art helps heal hidden wounds

Murray Leff, 94, at home in Bellerose, Queens,

Murray Leff, 94, at home in Bellerose, Queens, has updated his camera equipment from the Leica he used to photograph his WWII experiences, which are published in "Lens of an Infantryman: A World War II Memoir with Photographs from a Hidden Camera." "This is real war, not what they let you see in the news," Leff says of his images. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

When Sanford “Sandy” Bier was an Army medic during the Korean War, he escaped the carnage that exploded around him by doodling whimsical cartoons depicting the life of his fellow soldiers.

One shows a grimacing GI, who has recently returned from R&R leave and is receiving an antibiotic injection.

A medical officer stooping behind him — his wide grin oozing schadenfreude — rams an enormous needle into the reddened bottom of the soldier, who white-knuckles the belt of his lowered trousers. The soldier has thrown back his head in cartoonish pain, his mouth agape in mid “Yeowee!”

Another of Bier’s artworks shows a trio of soldiers, two of whom ply an inebriated third from flasks held joyously aloft. For the three of them, the numbing cold and routine death that were the Korean War’s hallmarks seem distant.

Bier, 92, inked these and other artworks during the Korean War, which lasted from June 1950 to July 1953, then stored them away for the better part of a half century. His wife, Jeany, discovered them about five years ago, while cleaning out their East Meadow home.

“I think it helped calm him and focus him away from the bad stuff and toward the lighter stuff,” she said.

Ten years ago, Murray Leff published a collection of battlefield photographs shot with a camera he carried while serving in Europe as an Army infantryman during World War II.

The images in the book — “Lens of an Infantryman: A World War II Memoir with Photographs from a Hidden Camera” — convey war’s unrelenting grit. One shows grubby soldiers crouching in a flooded foxhole, soaked to the skin and ducking deadly gunfire. Another shows Leff beside an American tank, whose crew had rushed to his aid the day before. The tank had been engulfed in flames after taking an artillery round that morning. The incinerated body of a crew member lies nearby.

“This is real war, not what they let you see in the news,” said Leff, 94, of Bellerose, Queens.

Painter Phil Jacobs, 71, of Rockville Centre, said he unknowingly displayed symptoms of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder — nightmares and flashback memories — until five years ago when he joined an art group sponsored by the Nassau Vet Center, a federal Department of Veterans Affairs program in Hicksville.

Jacobs, who draws or paints a few hours most days in a corner of his apartment, said he takes time out to work with other members of the veterans’ artist group, which meets at the Vet Center on Wednesday afternoons. He said his artwork helps him remain connected with them and other vets, who he says share many of the painful emotions he brought back from Vietnam with him.

One of Jacobs’ paintings depicts a road that his unit built near the Cambodia border. The painting shows the road pocked with huge craters that Jacobs said were created when America’s military leaders decided the road had to be destroyed because it had been laced with land mines. Vietnam’s infamous Black Virgin Mountain stands in the background.

“It was just a waste, it seems,” Jacobs said of repeated efforts to build and rebuild the road, before alluding to the costly 1969 Hamburger Hill battle in which American troops captured Ap Bia Mountain, then immediately abandoned it as irrelevant. “It was my Hamburger Hill, in a way.”

Art historians have long recognized the impulse among many veterans to convey their unique experiences as survivors of war through the expressive arts.

“Just as veterans did after World War II, the veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan are helping to reinvigorate the arts in America,” Jane Milosch, a curator at the Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, said in curatorial material for the 2012 exhibit Arts, Military + Healing, a weeklong display of veterans’ art sponsored by the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress and other institutions.

Depictions of combat and its grim outcomes were incorporated in Egyptian stone carvings dating from more than 5,000 years ago, and 10,000-year-old cave paintings depicting opposing war parties have been discovered in caves in Australia and southern Europe. Even Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey” references the difficulty that war veterans often have while trying to free themselves from combat’s unsettling memories of danger and death.

In his 1994 book “Achilles in Vietnam,” psychiatrist Jonathan Shay posits that war veterans often find themselves unwilling to find relief by sharing their stories verbally because friends or family members are often uncomfortable hearing about war’s gut-wrenching details.

But as far back as the mid-1940s, art therapists and self-help groups have been encouraging veterans to express themselves through the arts as a means of validating their feelings.

In 1944, the Museum of Modern Art invited soldiers returning from World War II combat to produce works at its newly formed War Veterans Art Center, as a way of helping them cope.

“The principal objective of the center was to help veterans adjust themselves through the creative process,” center director Victor D’Amico wrote in a 1948 announcement of a MoMA show depicting paintings, sculpture and other artworks of participating veterans.

And more than a decade ago, as American troops began returning from combat in Iraq, the Department of Veterans Affairs began boosting art programs as a way of helping former soldiers who struggled with verbal therapy to deal with depression, suicidal thoughts or other symptoms of PTSD.

Supporters of veteran artists said that because fewer than 1 percent of Americans today have served in the military — versus 12 percent during World War II, from 1941 to 1945 — artistic expression is a rare opportunity to share the often untold perceptions of people who have fought in war.

“We shouldn’t just appreciate veterans, we should appreciate the whole person and all their experiences,” said Jude Schanzer, director of programming at the East Meadow Public Library, and an organizer of an exhibition of veterans’ artwork there. The exhibition of 36 pieces will include works by Bier and Jacobs.

She said her father, Oscar Schanzer, who died in 1996, had been among the first Allied troops ashore during the D-Day invasion of Omaha Beach as a member of the Signal Corps. But he had been unwilling to share his wartime memories, and spoke only once to her about it. He told her of watching helplessly as a soldier struggling toward safety was cut down on Omaha Beach by friendly fire, as Oscar Schanzer desperately radioed for Allied troops to stop shooting.

“My father dealt with it by not talking about it,” she said. “But he loved to sing. It made him happy.”


Veterans art show

An exhibition of artwork by area veterans opened Nov. 4 at the East Meadow Public Library, 1886 Front St. The show runs through Nov. 29.

For more information, call 516 794-2570.

Their war stories

Art has intrigued and sustained other veterans featured this year in LI Life:

WWII vet Arthur Bonne, April 9, 2017

“I’d never been more than 150 miles from home in my life, and here I was in India. I wanted to see everything. It was quite a feeling.”

WWI vet Sal Cillis, July 30, 2017

“We exercise a little in the morning. They take us out marching in the afternoon, give a few lessons in military matters and so ends the days.”

WWII vet Creighton Berry, Sept. 10, 2017

“I was drawing from high school. It was something I picked up as a child from looking at his [cartoonist E. Simms Campbell] work.”

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