A suicidal soldier will speak out as part of a Liverpool art installation, which examines the effects of war on servicemen and their families.
Up to ten former soldiers who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan are taking part in the project, which is entitled “War Veteran’s Vehicle”.
They include Lee Sanger, 29, who joined Queen’s Lancashire regiment at 18 and was sent to Iraq for six months in 2003. He was one of 30 British soldiers caught up in a riot at a police station on the outskirts of Basra, where he came under a hail of bricks and insurgent gunfire from a crowd of 300 Iraqis.
“I thought I was going to die,” says Sanger, “but all I was worrying about was whether [the insurgents] would parade my body through the streets because I didn’t want my mum to see that on the news.”
Sanger has been getting flashbacks ever since—including a recurring image of a little Iraqi girl who begged him for water, but who he was unable to help. “I see her every day,” he says.
He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2004 and medically discharged from the army in 2006, with £10,000 compensation and an Armed Forces pension.
Since then he has struggled to cope with PTSD. “Anything can trigger it off and I feel like I am back [in Iraq]”, but “doctors just don’t understand the condition”; employers “have never heard of it”, and landlords “won’t give me a chance”.
At his lowest point, Sanger tried to commit suicide by drowning himself in the River Mersey and eventually he ended up living in a homeless shelter.
He believes that soldiers who suffer PTSD should be treated more equitably by the Ministry of Defence (MoD). “I feel really humbled for the man who has lost his legs [in combat] but what about the soldier who suffers from a mental health condition? Everyone who serves should be treated fairly,” he says.
The maximum compensation paid out by the MoD for a physical injury is £570,000, whereas the maximum for a mental illness is £48,875. But Sanger says that in some ways veterans with PTSD face greater difficulties than those with visible injuries: “Because people can’t see my injury, they can’t understand it. If you say you have PTSD, they look at you like you’re daft.”
Sanger has now told his story to the Polish artist Krzysztof Wodiczko, who is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US.
Wodiczko’s film will consist of Sanger’s words flashing across a massive black screen while the soldier’s voice will be heard over loudspeakers.
It is one of around ten films recounting the experiences of veterans that will be projected from Land Rover vehicles on to public buildings in Liverpool from 23-27 September, as part of a new film festival entitled “Abandon Normal Devices”.
The likely sites include the bell tower of the Metropolitan Cathedral; St George’s Hall, the grandest municipal building in the city, and the ventilation shaft for Queensway Road tunnel on the George’s Dock building.
Wodiczko denies that the project is anti-war. “This is not about the rights or wrongs” of the conflicts, he says. “It’s about the difficulty of communicating what one went through” with people “who don’t share a similar experience”.
“It aims to bridge the gap between “those who know what war is” and “those who don’t”, he adds, explaining that veterans struggle “to find the language” to describe their experiences in the warzone.
Wodiczko believes more should be done to help soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. “One must change to become a warrior,” he says. “There is a process of preparation for the way one must act as a soldier in order to survive and fulfil one’s duty before going to war. Why are there no training camps or instructions or preparation before coming back home? How [are soldiers expected to] come back and enter the minds and bodies of civilians?”
The artist has created more than 70 large-scale slide and video projections of politically charged images on architectural façades and monuments around the world. In 1985 he projected images of cruise missiles on Nelson’s Column in London’s Trafalgar Square, and affixed a swastika onto the roundel set in the classical entablature of South Africa House that houses the South African High Commission.
“War Veterans Vehicle” has been organised in conjunction with the Foundation for Art and Technology in Liverpool, which is hosting a series of other events as part of “Abandon Normal Devices”. For details visit www.fact.co.uk. For full festival listings visit: www.andfestival.org.uk