I Was a Medic; Healing through art

Retired Tech. Sgt. Steven Luu applies casting tape to branches to form a tree in Hangar 4 at Joint Base Andrews, Md., May 25, 2016. Luu came to JBA to put the finishing touches on his tree sculpture, titled: The Day After Combat, as part of an art therapy program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Gabrielle Spalding)

Retired Tech. Sgt. Steven Luu applies casting tape to branches to form a tree in Hangar 4 at Joint Base Andrews, Md., May 25, 2016. Luu came to JBA to put the finishing touches on his tree sculpture, titled: The Day After Combat, as part of an art therapy program. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Gabrielle Spalding)

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. -- The echoes of the birds chirp through a mostly empty hangar, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, past a C-37A aircraft, to a tall-standing white tree placed curiously next to a worn Airman Battle Uniform top adhered to a canvas.

Retired Tech. Sgt. Steven Luu is hunched over a yellow paint bucket, dipping casting tape into water and applying it to branches, adding his final touches to form a tree, titled: The Day After Combat.

The artwork sat in a warehouse in Lorton, Virginia, until Master Sgt. Chad Stakolosa, 11th Logistics and Readiness Squadron assurance superintendent, got a call from a former co-worker, a wounded warrior, needing assistance to move the pieces of the tree to a place where Luu could work on it.

"It was kind of a new request, but I went over to the warehouse and picked it up." Stakolosa said.

Luu was at Walter Reed National Medical Center at this time, going through surgery. He was cleared to come to Hangar 4, on Andrews, and finish his work.

"I've been at WRNMC for two years," Luu said. "Part of the program for me is artwork. This tree was started over a year ago and took me 15 months to complete."

Luu started his 20 year career in logistics, then cross trained to become a medic and was deployed three times.

"During my three deployments, I had to prepare 822 bodies to be transported back to the states," Luu said. "My third deployment to Afghanistan, I was injured."

As Luu reflected, people periodically ventured in and out of the hangar; he showed signs of discomfort as they came and went, clearly aware of their presence, but stayed the course in telling the story behind his work.

"Making the art was not easy," said Luu. "There are a lot of emotional triggers. But I'm very happy Master Sgt. Stakolosa agreed to help me."

The tree is made of branches given to him by fellow servicemen, representing the men and women he helped during his deployments. The casting of them represents him as a medic, putting them together to make a whole.

"This tree is a patient," Luu explains. "I'm very good at putting people together. This is what I did on the battlefield."

The ABU piece, titled: I Was a Medic, was created with a top he wore during his deployments. He painted it with olive green, black and red paint.

"The green and back paint is the smoke I had to deal with," Luu said. "The red is not my blood. That's the blood of the casualties."

In the center, near the collar is an abstracted, anatomical heart; broken, but somewhat sewn together with thick, black wire.

"But the heart is mine," said Luu. "It cannot close."

This artwork has faced a battle of its own. Never having a solid place to call home.

"I was initially going to give it to a doctor, but she said she could not put it in her living room because it was too graphic." Luu said. "No one wanted him."

But eventually someone did give it a home. Soon the Wounded Warrior office, in San Antonio, Texas, agreed to display the artwork.

For Luu, the creation of the tree and ABU piece, is the therapy he needs to cope with the trauma of the war he has lived through, as well as bring him a sort of peace with his experiences as a medic.