I serve on the Los Angeles County Veterans Advisory Commission, but these opinions are mine and personal.
The commission is advisory, so commissioners enjoy no lofty powers, which is OK by me. Sometimes there is a lot of power in an idea. Art, for instance, visualizes ideas.
If something comes up at a monthly meeting that we think the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors should know about, we discuss it. Then we vote on a recommendation.
As low on the pyramid of power as we are, everyone appointed to the commission is a veteran, but our agenda is pretty modest against the big map of veteran crises in America.
We still have 17 veterans, a day, committing suicide. Vietnam and Post 9/11 veterans continue to experience homelessness. Agent Orange-triggered illnesses kill veterans 50 years after Vietnam.
The president recently signed “PACT Act” legislation to fund medical help for veterans poisoned by “burn pits” in Afghanistan and Iraq, 20 years after the 9/11 wars began. Troops there were tasked to burn oil-soaked human waste, discarded junk, plastic, solvents and sometimes body parts. So it was unhealthy and troops are still getting sick.
Closer to home, a different advisory commission is trying to make the Department of Veterans Affairs keep its promise to make the VA’s Greater West LA Healthcare System serve veterans only, rather than vested Westside interests.
The VA site was promised as a home for vets, not affluent recreationists using VA tennis courts.
It’s with keeping that promise that our two commissions converge. What came up is a proposed mural for a Metro station due to open, in 2027. If the project advances, artist Sandow Birk will be paid a hefty commission to create a veterans’ mural.
There’s a problem. Birk’s previous body of art displays a visualized hatred and contempt for veterans in a series of his paintings titled “Depravities of War.”
Exhibited on his professional website, Birk’s paintings depict US soldiers in Iraq, some of which show male soldiers in eroticized fantasy poses with Middle Eastern women or a female soldier.
The series includes a pair of paintings titled “Hero One.” One is of a sleeping soldier; the other “hero” painting is a Middle Eastern suicide bomber. The artist apparently removed the title caption, “Hero Two,” but the paintings remain up on Birk’s website. Screenshots preserve intent.
The only depravities in the exhibit appear as Birk’s fantasized vision of Americans pondering lechery. The American “hero” is asleep. The Middle Eastern terrorist was also a hero in Birk’s artistic selection. His title, “Hero Two,” was digitally scrubbed for reasons we do not know.
Metro, the regional transit agency, commissioned this artist and several others, to create murals for new stations to be built over several years.
Birk’s proposed mural would be at built at the Greater West Los Angeles VA hospital station, yet to be named. The mural proposal he submitted shows nothing of the veteran experience. Instead, it depicts a Navy dirigible, ship and submarine all named “Los Angeles” and a pastoral scene that dates back to dinosaurs. Veterans? Nowhere to be seen.
Metro states it consulted with veterans, but veterans in public hearings aren’t buying that. It appears no veterans were consulted in the Birk commission. The selection panel appears to have had little to no veteran insight. It was veterans who found out about Birk’s body of work.
This is not over. There will be more hearings and more questions will be asked. One question would be, “Who thought picking this artist would be a good candidate to paint a mural about veterans?” Had they seen his art?
Dennis Anderson, a licensed clinical social worker at High Desert Medical Group, serves on the Los Angeles County Veterans Advisory Commission. An Army veteran, he deployed to Iraq with the California National Guard to cover the war for the Antelope Valley Press.