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Helping veterans heal through art in Boulder County

A large sculpture project taking shape in Boulder County is helping veterans heal through art.
Sam Fuqua
The Warrior Storyfield project is helping veterans in Boulder County heal through art.

November 11 is Veteran’s Day, a federal holiday set aside to honor military veterans of the United States Armed Forces.

Many combat veterans still struggle with the trauma of their war experiences.

There’s a large sculpture project taking shape in Boulder County that is helping veterans heal through art.

Sculptor Robert Bellows is in his yard cheering on a newcomer who’s learning how to pound out a metal feather on an anvil.

"This is eighth-inch steel that we’re making a tail feather out of and there will be, gosh, probably a thousand or fifteen hundred of these feathers on there. So that’s a lot of feathers," he said.

A metal phoenix that’s almost 20 feet high is made out of 8-inch steel.
Sam Fuqua
A metal phoenix made of eighth-inch steel stands almost twenty feet tall

The feathers will be welded onto a metal phoenix that’s rising almost twenty feet next to the anvil.

The phoenix is facing an equally large metal dragon, standing a few feet away with wings spread wide.

This is the Warrior Storyfield project.

Veteran Bob Lecy is one of the artists working here today.

"What we have is really three sculptures, one is a dragon, which the war narrative, the war experience, and a phoenix bird with is the transformation. And then the space in between is really the most important part," said Lecy.

Lecy was a combat medic with the 4th Infantry in the Vietnam War.

To him, that space between the dragon and the phoenix represents a difficult decision veterans have to make when they return home.

"There’s a choice to be made there and the choice is do I continue to let the war narrative control my life or do I take the risk to move towards the transformation and the unknown?"

The dragon sculpture represents the war experience. The phoenix sculpture represents transformation.
Sam Fuqua
The space between the dragon and the phoenix represents a difficult decision veterans have to make when they return home

Lecy says it took him over forty years to come to terms with that choice.

"I think one of the things that is most difficult for people to understand, even for the veteran and the family, is that war changes us. And when we come home, that person who went to war is not the person that comes home. That person is gone. And understanding that fundamental change is the most difficult part for the veteran and the society," he said.

Artist Robert Bellows is about the same age as Bob Lecy but he did not serve in Vietnam.

The draft system at the time was a lottery, those with low numbers were drafted first and Bellows got a high number.

"And at that time I kind of just shut myself off from war. It was kinda like 'phew, I don’t have to do that.' And like so many civilians, I no longer paid attention to those who went to fight. And there’s a certain embarrassment in that," he said.

Thirty years later, a couple of Vietnam vets came to Bellows metal shop and asked if they could help him with a sculpture he was working on at the time.

That collaboration eventually led to this project.

Sculptor Robert Bellows estimates it will take another three to five years to finish the dragon and phoenix sculptures.
Sam Fuqua
The dragon sculpture represents the war experience for the veterans involved in the project.

They’ve been at it almost a decade, working outside Bellows’ home in rural Boulder County.

He estimates that 50 or 60 people, veterans and nonveterans, have contributed serious volunteer time to the project.

There’s a core group of eight or nine, including Bob Lecy and Andy Morris, a Vietnam vet and retired military officer.

"I don’t claim to be an artist but I have fun poking fun and Robert, asking things like 'Is this feather bent exactly the way you want it to be bent?'"

Morris and his son built an eight foot forge on the property to help craft some of the largest metal feathers.

It’s a place I can work with my hands, which I find very soothing, if that’s the word for it," said Morris.

"I just think it’s great project. I just hope we can find a place to put it when it’s all done. God knows when that’ll be."

Sculptor Robert Bellows estimates it will take another three to five years to finish the sculptures.

Then they hope to place it in a large park somewhere so it can become a peaceful community gathering place and a place that can help veterans heal .

My hope is that the Storyfield will save other veterans twenty or thirty years of struggle and pain in trying to heal from their experience of war. And if that happens, I’ll feel like we have, and I have, done a great service," said Lecy.

This story from KGNU was shared with Aspen Public Radio via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico including Aspen Public Radio.

Sam Fuqua is an award-winning radio journalist who has worked in public media since 1990, including over 20 years on the staff of KGNU, the community public radio station serving Boulder/Denver. He co-hosts KGNU's quarterly call-in program focused on conflict resolution.