War Paint: Artist risks brushes with death in Afghanistan

A former soldier is getting ready to head off to war-torn Afghanistan, only instead of carrying a rifle, he’ll be armed with pencils and paintbrushes.

Chris Hennebery, 42, spent more than 20 years as a member of the Royal Westminster Regiment and wants to literally draw attention to the stories of reserve soldiers who leave their lives and family behind to serve their country overseas.

Sometime next spring (the military won’t let him give the exact dates), the married father of two young children will be trading the cozy confines of his office at a downtown software development company for the mean streets of Kandahar as part of the Canadian Forces Artists Program, a military initiative that allows volunteer artists to document the experiences of Canadian troops at home and overseas.

“I’m getting embed status as an embedded artist,” said Hennebery, who will also be accompanied by a photographer. “We’re going there almost as media. I’ll be an independent, outside eye looking at them as they do their job, and I’ll be trucking around in the desert with them. ”

Hennebery, who has the rank of sergeant and studied painting at Emily Carr University, never served overseas during his time in the reserves but has plenty of friends who have. He said the tales of Reserve Forces – part-time volunteer soldiers who have regular civilian jobs – don’t always receive the same level of attention that those of full-time members of the Armed Forces do.

“It’s usually very focused on the regular forces, which is obviously important, but 40 per cent of our tours and peacekeeping missions are augmented by citizen soldiers. They’re truck drivers, they work for B.C. Transit, they’re policemen and firemen – these are people who literally have to walk away from their jobs and families to go over there and volunteer,” said Hennebery. “They’re working on the front lines with regular force soldiers on patrols or as part of the Omelet (the nickname for the OMLT, the Operational Mentoring and Liaison Team), which is the group in charge of training the Afghans. They’re sprinkled all over, so it is really kind of an interesting story and no one has really documented it. The goal is not to glorify war but instead capture the spirit and intent of the volunteer soldiers.”

He said that while many soldiers bring back plenty of posed or hastily snapped photos, they often don’t capture the essence of the experience. It’s hard to get a good shot when you’re busy doing your job, be it sweeping for landmines, building schools and roads, liaising with local communities or battling the Taliban.

“That is the whole genesis of this project. I’ll be doing lots of sketches and lots of water colours as preliminary pieces. We’ll document the stories and from that, when I get back home, I’ll have all of this content which I’ll then use to finish the project. My pieces are quite allegorical, they’re very story-driven.”

He said that he also expects to see some familiar faces when he gets there.

“Over 70 people have already gone from our tiny regiment, which is significant,” he said.

The Royal Westminster Regiment also has one who didn’t return, Master Cpl. Colin Bason, who was killed instantly when a vehicle he was riding in was destroyed by a roadside bomb in 2007.

Hennebery admitted his family isn’t exactly thrilled with the whole idea.

“I have my family going ‘Well, OK, it’s a noble idea, it’s great, we support you, but really?’ The thing is, I was a soldier for 22 years, and my wife kind of takes it in stride. Plus I’m not going to be there very long, I’ll only be there for a couple of weeks.”

While the Armed Forces is providing the access, it is up to Hennebery to come up with the funds.

To find out more about the project or to make a donation, go to http://www.paintingtoafghanistan.com.

(This story was first published Dec. 10, 2010. © Copyright (c) New West Record)

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