Pitt veterans paint masks, share stories to spotlight mental health


Ethan Shulman | Staff Photographer

Kameron Langston, program coordinator of the Office of Veterans Services, stands near papier-mâché masks made by student veterans in the McCarl Center in Posvar Hall on Monday.

By Patrick Swain, Senior Staff Writer

Papier-mâché masks adorned in acrylic paint lined the McCarl Center in Posvar Hall on Monday. In the strokes and splatters lay the stories of Pitt’s veterans 一 the trauma of violence coupled with the pride of service, as well as hope for the future. Whereas traditional masks conceal faces, these ones bore portraits of the painters’ psyches, unveiling the struggles within the minds of student veterans.

To celebrate this year’s Veterans Week at Pitt, the Office of Veteran Services led “Pitt Warriors: Our Stories,” an art exhibition that showcases the lives of student veterans and bolsters conversations surrounding veterans’ mental health. They asked veterans in Pitt’s student body to paint masks with designs conveying their military stories. The office assembled their work and displayed the masks for students to see in room 1400 of Posvar Hall. 

According to the office’s website, Pitt is home to more than 500 registered student veterans. Kameron Langston, program coordinator for the office, organized the event to give veterans on campus a creative outlet. She said veterans at Pitt often feel disconnected from the rest of the student body due to their service, age and experience. 

“A lot of [veterans] have different identities, different backgrounds and a lot of that comes out when they’re in the military… With all that playing in, they kind of feel a little bit isolated and alone,” Langston said. “Sometimes they feel like they can’t participate in normal university stuff, because [of] some of the barriers they’re facing 一 a lot of them are older than the typical university population, or they’re just more experienced in the world.”

The Office of Veterans Services hosted a Meet-a-Veteran barbecue in the McCarl Center on Monday to coincide with the exhibit, where students could grab a bite to eat while chatting with veterans and admiring the masks. Chance Thomas, a sophomore social work major who painted a mask and attended the barbecue, said it was vital to destigmatize mental health issues among veterans.

“Veterans, historically, have been like, ‘Mind over matter, we don’t talk about feelings.’ That’s why you’re seeing a lot of veterans coming back with a lot of problems 一 and it’s not new. We saw it in Vietnam, we just didn’t address it,” Thomas said. “You’ve got a lot of veterans running around that look calm on the surface and underneath there’s this riptide of all this stuff going through, because they can’t talk about it in the military. They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re fine.’”

Thomas, who served as a military police officer in the Navy, is openly transgender. His mask illustrated the duality of his life in the military 一 one half sported blue and gray naval camouflage, while the other featured gay and trans pride flags. Thomas said the mask represents the struggle between those two identities.

“I’m half this, half that. You can’t really integrate them fully … Do I have to camouflage all of my face or can I be both at the same time? Sometimes, even as a veteran on campus, historically you can either be a vet or you can be queer or you can be trans,” Thomas said. “What armor am I going to put on today? What am I safe showing?”

The masks were artistically eclectic 一 many incorporated military imagery like camouflage and American flags, while others took a more abstract approach with blood, war paint and Arabic calligraphy. Langston said painting these masks allowed veterans to reflect on their own struggles while sharing their stories with other Pitt students. 

“[The veterans] are told to tell their military story and how it has affected their integration into the University… we kind of leave it broad and that worked out really well,” Langston said. “[We] give them a chance to tell their story without having to actually tell their story, in a less face-to-face way, so if people are interested in learning about veterans, then they can come in and look at the masks and they don’t have to necessarily talk straight to a veteran.” 

Nick Albert, a sophomore marketing major who served in the intelligence community of the Marine Corps, said art helps veterans express the emotions that are difficult to put into words.

“It helps the veterans to express their experiences in ways other than words. Sometimes talking about their experiences is hard for certain veterans,” Albert said. “It’s not the easiest thing to do, especially if they went through a lot.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 11-20% of Americans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan have post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicide rates among veterans peaked in 2018, but have fallen since then. Langston attributes this decrease to increasing consciousness of mental health issues. For this reason, she said, it’s important that veterans have a chance to express themselves through art.

“People are having mental health conversations and bringing mental health to the forefront of peoples’ minds. As the veterans are making these masks, they’re realizing ‘Wow, I may be struggling a little bit and this mask is bringing stuff up for me,’” Langston said. “While the masks aren’t meant to be therapy or a therapy intervention, they are a way to start that conversation.”