OCEAN CITY – Joe Merritt carries an old military backpack that is similar to the one he carried during two deployments in Afghanistan. But these days, that backpack is filled with paintbrushes and paper, rather than weapons and rations.
He admits while the weapons may have saved his life a time or two in war, the paintbrushes and paper have absolutely saved him now that he’s home.
Like many war veterans, the 30-year-old Denton native had trouble readjusting to civilian life after spending the better part of three years overseas fighting in America’s war in the Middle East.
“Art has brought me a long way, because I couldn’t bring myself to talk about what I experienced,” said Merritt, “but when I found art, I realized I was able to show people how I was feeling. It changed the way I was able to communicate with the world.”
A gallery of Merritt’s art work called “The Things I Carry” will debut in the Galleria at the Ocean City Center for the Arts’ 94th street location at 5 p.m. on Friday night and will be showcased throughout the month of November.
Merritt’s striking artwork that implements paint and spray paint on canvas, handmade paper and old military uniforms, has helped him navigate through the deep depression that many veterans struggle with after returning from war, often called PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). He says these finished works of art tell the stories of people who become literal “works in progress” when they come home from war.
‘I Want To Go Right Away’
In 2006, while working a dead-end job in Denton, Merritt received word that one of his closest friends had been killed in Iraq. Something snapped in the then 21-year-old, and he soon found himself face to face with the local Marine recruiter.
“I said, here’s my papers, I want to go right away,” said Merritt. “I couldn’t stand to sit around and watch my friends die any longer.”
Ironically, Merritt landed in the exact same battalion as his deceased soldier-buddy after grinding his way through boot camp and infantry training. The next three years were spent either on a Marine MUE (Mission Unique Equipment) boat in Kuwait, Africa and Bangaladesh or in Afghanistan patrolling the region in anti-armor Humvees.
He says the realities of war are sometimes as hard for the public to understand as it is for soldiers to talk about.
“When I would get my 15 minutes to talk to my family, I wanted to talk about anything but what I was doing,” said Merritt. “They didn’t know what was going on except for what they saw on the news, but sometimes, I would just say ‘something bad happened today. I don’t want to talk about it, but I just want to know someone is there on the other line. Maybe someday I will be able to tell you.’”
Yet, as bad as things got in Afghanistan, there was a simplicity in the routine that he and many veterans missed when they return.
“You wake up, you clean your gun, and then you spend your day with the same small group of people,” he said. “There are no worries about paying bills or relationship troubles or petty dramas at work. Somedays you use your gun and somedays you don’t, and the days you don’t are good days.”
The War At Home
Merritt returned from war in 2009. He got married, had two kids and began a job as a machine gun instructor in Quantico, Va.
But things took a turn for the worse personally, and he says it triggered inner struggles he was, in hindsight, obviously repressing.
“My wife left me and all of a sudden I was a single dad with two little kids,” said Merritt. “I was so depressed. I would drop them off at the babysitters and just shut down. I couldn’t get off the couch.”
Eventually, Merritt tried therapy, but he focused on the trauma caused by the end of his marriage and still refused to address his growing PTSD symptoms.
Then one day a therapist recommended he pick up a paintbrush and soon, he realized that he could use visual metaphors to express the deep feelings of sadness he was toiling with upon losing friends, and articulate deep philosophical questions about what he had done while overseas.
“All you think about when you are over there is trying to survive and get back here,” he said, “but once you get back here you start asking questions like ‘why were we there in the first place’, and ‘why did these companies make billions of dollars off the war effort but many of the people who fought in the war are coming home so depressed that a 22 veterans a day are committing suicide?’”
Despite his new found form of expression, those deep questions and ignored demons led Merritt to a suicide attempt of his own in 2014.
He dropped his kids off at the babysitters, he pulled his car into his garage and he started swallowing pills by the fistful.
Fatefully, he was found, resuscitated, and saved. But he says, the most important part of surviving, was finally getting the help he needed.
“I was putting Band-aids on gaping mental wounds,” Merritt said.
‘My Art … Gets People Talking’
Marines are a stoic and proud bunch, so much so, that Merritt described a fire-fight as one of the “most intimate things you can be involved in, because you know only one person is going to walk away.”
But he says that stoicism can be a double edge sword, and his art has been a bridge that has helped both civilians and soldiers spark up important conversations about the realities of war.
“We have been trained to do everything for ourselves, and we have a hard time asking for help”, he said,
“but on the other hand, we don’t have conversations about this kind of stuff because we are all so fixated on pop culture. So my art blends the two together, gives it a twist, and gets people talking.”
One of Merritt’s paintings, which is reminiscent of Edvard Munch’s “the Scream”, juxtaposes the golden arches of McDonalds in a surrealistic city scape next to a bearded homeless veteran.
“If you look around, it’s as easy to find a homeless veteran as it is a Golden Arch,” said Merritt.
Recently, Merritt met First Lady Michelle Obama, Jill Biden and Prince Harry of England at a gallery in Bethesda and they all were quite taken by his work.
“If you have a story, you are an artist,” said Merritt. “You just have to find a way to express it.”
Strolling past his many brightly colored paintings that often evoke dark themes or imagery at the Ocean City Center for the Arts, Merritt stops and points to a painting of a Stormtrooper from the film Star Wars, who is wearing a business suit.
“I realized that I had been struggling for so long, that pictures like this completely capture what me and so many soldiers have been unable to say since we came home,” he whispered. “We are all just Stormtroopers trying to find a new job and a new path.”