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Behind the Mask

Revealing the Trauma of War

Brain injuries caused by blast events change soldiers in ways many can’t articulate. Some use art therapy, creating painted masks to express how they feel.

By Caroline Alexander
Photographs and Audio by Lynn Johnson

Picture of Marine Cpl. Chris McNair
Marine Cpl. Chris McNair (Ret.)
Afghanistan 2011-12

“I had this muzzle on with all these wounds and I couldn’t tell anybody about them.”


Picture of Marine Cpl. Chris McNair

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(0:33)

I thought this was a joke,” recalled Staff Sgt. Perry Hopman, who served as a flight medic in Iraq. “I wanted no part of it because, number one, I’m a man, and I don’t like holding a dainty little paintbrush. Number two, I’m not an artist. And number three, I’m not in kindergarten. Well, I was ignorant, and I was wrong, because it’s great. I think this is what started me kind of opening up and talking about stuff and actually trying to get better.”

Hopman is one of many service members guided by art therapist Melissa Walker at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence (NICoE), which is part of Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in Bethesda, Maryland. Images painted on their masks symbolize themes such as death, physical pain, and patriotism.

Picture of Army Staff Sgt. Perry Hopman
Army Staff Sgt. Perry Hopman
Iraq 2006-08

“I think he was one of the first patients I’d ever had to ask me to let him die.”


Picture of Army Staff Sgt. Perry Hopman

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(0:59)
Picture of Marine Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Tam and his family
Marine Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Tam (Ret.)
Iraq 2004-05, 2007-08

Photographed with his wife, Angela, and their two children

“Detonation happened and I was right there in the blast seat. I got blown up.”


Picture of Marine Gunnery Sgt. Aaron Tam

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(0:52)
Picture of retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Wester
Air Force Staff Sgt.
Robert “Bo” Wester (Ret.)
Iraq 2007, 2008-09, Afghanistan 2010

“If a mistake is made at that point, then death is almost certain.”


Picture of retired Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Wester

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(0:25)
Picture of Army Maj. Jeff Hall and his family
Army Maj. Jeff Hall (Ret.)
Iraq 2003-04, 2005

Photographed with his wife, Sheri (at left), and their two daughters

“I told him, I’m not cleaning your brains off the bedroom wall.”


Picture of Sheri Hall

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(0:27)
Picture of Army First Sgt. David Griego and his wife
Army First Sgt. David Griego
Iraq 2008, Afghanistan 2012

Photographed with his wife, Tracy

“Sometimes you find yourself saying, I wish ... I would have lost a body part, so people will see—so they’ll get it.”


Picture of Army First Sgt. David Griego

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(0:32)
Picture of Tracy Griego

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(0:58)
Picture of Marine Cpl. Chris McNair and his mother
Marine Cpl. Chris McNair (Ret.)
Afghanistan 2011-12

Photographed with his mother, Sandra

“He’ll live the rest of his life with the nightmares, the images, and that’s what the military can’t fix.”


Picture of McNair's mother, Sandra

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(0:37)
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