A former Army Guardsman is documenting the murals troops left behind during the Global War on Terror
"It's kind of a representation, a quick little snapshot of these service members' identity, their life-changing experience that they went through together."
Camp Buehring is a long way from Minnesota. Grafted onto the middle of the Kuwaiti desert, the base heats up to 125 degrees or more in the dry season and gets drenched by six-inch floodwaters in the rainy season. For Sgt. Eric Strand, a former finance soldier with the Minnesota National Guard, it was also a boring place to spend a deployment — until he took a long hard look at the twelve-foot high concrete walls surrounding him.
The walls, called Texas barriers or T-walls, are resistant to rocket and mortar attacks, making them a ubiquitous protective feature on the U.S. military bases that have sprung up around the world as part of the Global War on Terror. T-walls also make for great canvases, as evidenced by the countless service members who have painted vivid murals on the barriers in the years since the Global War on Terror began.
As Strand soon realized, Camp Buehring is no exception. In fact, the base is like the Louvre for T-Wall art for the American units cycling into and out of Iraq. Murals of Apache gunships, gladiators, wolves and knights grace the barriers alongside the name of the unit that painted them.
Strand sees the barriers as a living monument to the service members who served and fought there, much like the airplane nose art of World War II.
“This is something people care about, that represents the unit and the time they served there,” Strand told Task & Purpose.
Many of those murals are now fading away, eroding under the hot desert sun, and that's part of the reason why Strand started a website to document photos of T-Wall art from GWOT bases. His website, WarMurals.com, features hundreds of photos of murals painted at Camp Buehring, as well as bases in Iraq such as Sather Air Force Base, Forward Operating Base Warhorse, Contingency Operation Station Echo and Contingency Operating Site Kalsu.
Strand, who started WarMurals.com earlier this year, took many of the photos of Buehring himself and downloaded others taken by military photographers which were publicly available. While he hasn't received many contributions yet from other vets and service members, he hopes the website will become both a sharing platform and a forum for service members to discuss the murals and remember their stories from overseas. With time, he also hopes to expand into porta-potty art, challenge coins, morale shirts, and other media.
“I guess it's kind of a representation, a quick little snapshot of these service members' identity, their life-changing experience that they went through together,” said Strand, who got out of the Army in September. “There's all kinds of quirky avenues to go down there.”
Strand isn't the first to take up a project of this nature, although he says WarMurals.com stands out in focusing solely on archiving war murals from all the theaters of GWOT. Other efforts include the Graffiti of War project, which seeks to catalogue war art and raise awareness of PTSD. More recent efforts include that of Maj. Loren Hutsell, an Army chaplain who in 2014 wrote a 305-page thesis on Camp Buehring barrier art and troop identity in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“[T]he barriers are not only a memorial of military personnel deployed to war, but a record of national history,” wrote Hutsell, who took 200 barrier photos while he was deployed to Buehring in 2009. “As such, it is critical that our national and military leaders act swiftly in documentation and preservation of these barriers to fully benefit from their value.”
War murals convey more than just memories, Hutsell argued: they also express the values “that motivate and sustain the souls of America's warfighters during conflict.” The symbols, mottos and colors used in a unit's mural communicate what is most important to the unit's character, whether that's aggression, patriotism, humor or strength.
Camp Buehring in particular is an exciting place to find mural art, Hutsell wrote. Since the base is primarily used to support American troops as they prepared to deploy to Iraq, there are fewer civilians or foreign nationals around who might be offended by the war art, he said. That lack of censorship allows troops to express themselves more freely, he reasoned.
For example, one unit, the Navy Provisional Detainee Battalion V, drew an image of a boot and an anchor breaking apart chunks of concrete. While the image may express sailors' confidence in completing a land-based mission, it might also be offensive to Muslims, considering how it is very rude to show someone the sole of your shoe in Muslim cultures (and basically any other culture too, when you think about it), according Hutsell.
“Had the barrier been painted in a less American-troop-specific area, it would have most certainly caused controversy and been covered as a result,” he wrote. “The boot illustration strengthens the knowledge that barriers painted at Camp Buehring were true representations of America troops.”
Navy Provisional Detainee Battalion V mural. Camp Buehring, Kuwait. (Maj. Loren Hutsell)
Hutsell traced the origins of barrier art to World War II bomber nose art which he argued was produced, unlike official war propaganda, by soldiers and for soldiers' benefit alone. While nose art originally depicted scantily clad women, the medium expanded over the Cold War to include comic-strip characters and unit mottos.
Like its Cold War predecessors, the barrier art of GWOT is driven by pop culture, unit motivators and patriotism. Still, Hutsell noted a range of styles and tones expressed through the murals. For example, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 8th Cavalry Regiment's mural featured skulls, blades, flames and the grim reaper alongside the words “shoot em in the face,” and “kick em in the junk,” all of which seems to emphasize the unit's take-no-prisoners approach to their pending deployment.
“The deployment mindset of the 10th SBTB is evident; the people of Iraq are not an object of wrath, but of rapport” Hutsell wrote. Special Troops Battalion, 10th Sustainment Brigade (Maj. Loren Hutsell)
Meanwhile, other units saw themselves less as warriors and more as protectors. The soldiers of Special Troops Battalion, 10th Sustainment Brigade, painted a knight who seems to be defending a peaceful Iraqi town. Despite the crusader-like overtones, the mural seems to indicate that the unit thinks the Iraqi people “are not an object of wrath, but of rapport,” Hutsell argued.
3rd Battalion (General Support), 10th Aviation Regiment. The battalion's mascot, a phoenix, is reborn through fire. Similarly, the 3-10th's mission is to bring security in order that a destroyed Iraqi village may be reborn and prosper, Hutsell writes. (Maj. Loren Hutsell)
In the pantheon of war mural art, one Army MOS stands apart: dentists. Where the combat arms murals often celebrate destruction and violence, medical unit murals—and dentists in particular—are usually cheery and good-humored. For example, the 673rd Medical Company (Dental Services) mural features a bulldog and the words “One shot one fill,” a twist on the special operations motto “one shot one kill.”
The 673rd Medical Company twists the “One Shot One Kill” special operations motto and switches it to “One Shot One Fill,” Hutsell writes. (Maj. Loren Hutsell)
Another dentist unit, the 307th Medical Company (Dental Services), features on its mural the comic book supervillain Venom climbing up a wall and showing off his teeth, alongside the pun “Scaling above the rest,” which refers to a technique of removing plaque buildup. Other medical units based in Florida or Hawaii depict sunny scenes from their home states on their murals.
307th Medical Company (Dental Services) is a double entendre referring to teeth cleaning as well as the unit's standard setting service, writes Hutsell.(Maj. Loren Hutsell)
Combat or non-combat, humor could be found in many of the murals, Hutsell observed. In fact, 26% of the 200 murals Hutsell studied had elements of wit, comedy or absurdity, while only 16% featured symbols, mottos, or colors to express devotion to country, he wrote.
“We do questionable things for questionable people,” reads the mural for Headquarters Company, 425th Civil Affairs Battalion. The quote is evidence that many of the soldiers creating the murals were not starry-eyed patriots, Hutsell said, but realists who developed a keen sense of humor to ease the mental and moral burdens of deployment to a long-running war.
Headquarters Company, 425th Civil Affairs Battalion, snuck the motto “We do Questionable Things for Questionable People,” on the step of its t-wall barrier, noted Hutsell. The motto seems to have faded away by the time Strand photographed the same mural ten years later in 2019.(Eric Strand)
“Humor does not dismiss difficulty, but assists troops in living through challenging circumstances,” the chaplain wrote. “Consequently, it is not unusual or worrisome that aggressive images are created alongside those that are humorous. Such images do not indicate a lack of proper respect for the war environment or enemy, but are an aspect of resiliency.”
Strand observed as much during his time at Camp Buehring. “The combat ones have a more edgy feel to it,” he told Task & Purpose, about the murals. “With the non-combat support roles there's a little bit more tongue-in-cheek humor.”
As the war in Afghanistan drags on and GWOT expands across the globe, now might be a good time to chronicle some of that humor. At least, Strand seems to think so.
“If there's anything ubiquitous to the Global War on Terror,” it's the T-Wall barriers, Strand said. “So if any one's interested they can share.”