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Vet expresses pain through art Ex-Marine uses spray paint to heal mental battle scars; works on display in Chicago

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LANHAM, Md. — Every artist has his favorite medium.

For Jon Hancock, 30, that medium is spray paint. The Maryland artist — whose art is on display at the National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago — purchases dozens of cans in different colors.

“Let’s use this one,” Hancock said in his backyard art studio, picking up a yellow can.

When he pushed down on the nozzle of the can, he not only releases paint, but 10 deployments’ worth of military memories.

One of those military memories was when he first killed a man, in Iraq.

“We were in Ramadi in 2004,” Hancock said. “The ‘oh-s — moment’ was when I turned the corner and stitched a guy up from groin to neck. I turned the corner and he was there. He had an RPG. He was getting ready to sling up on his shoulder, and I, just, (fired) seven, eight rounds from groin right to the neck. I just kept plugging away, and right then ... that was the point when I was like, ‘I’m in this s— ... I’m in it.’”

For eight years, Hancock was a Marine, working a variety of jobs in the reconnaissance community.

He said he eventually became an interrogator and source handler, working in Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa.

Hancock said his deployments serve as an inspiration for his artwork.

“I’m a huge fan of Van Gogh,” Hancock said. “Art has always just been really cool to me, and I’ve always enjoyed anybody that goes outside the box with it, and do more interesting things.”

Like Van Gogh, Hancock is plagued by his own demons including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, the result of what he said was being exposed to multiple roadside-bomb explosions and concussions.

“I have really vivid and imaginative nightmares, and they’re really crazy,” Hancock said. “Every night is a wake-up in cold sweat. My sleep pattern’s off. I don’t sleep a lot. Maybe an hour or two a day.”

He joined the Marine Corps in May 2001, but those painful memories didn’t start until his second Iraq deployment.

“Once you kill somebody, it happens,” Hancock said. “Afterwards, you think about it, and whatever you do that day stays with you your entire life, because it’s such a raw environment. It’s so absolutely chaotic and violent. ... It’s just so bad that it sears itself into your memory, and that’s what happens every time.”

Also seared into his memory are the deaths of his brothers-in-arms.

“I never went to most of the graves of most of the guys, and that’s kinda how I dealt with it,” Hancock said. “It’s sad when it happens and you cry a lot. ‘Why did this ... happen?’ ... And then you justify it with, ‘He was at war.’ And you say, ‘He was a hero.’”

“ ... I guess the mourning process is constant. It’s an everyday thing for me,” he said.

Returning home, Hancock said he began drinking heavily.

“I drink to sleep, and that becomes a problem because I’m probably an alcoholic, but functioning nonetheless,” he said, adding that alcohol quells his nightmares and allows him to fall asleep.

What saved him was his artwork.

“It’s therapeutic. It’s gotten me away from the bars a lot more,” Hancock said.

Besides telling his stories through artwork, Hancock is a teaching assistant at the University of Maryland’s Arabic studies department.

“Teaching in an actual standardized environment is interesting because you ... actually get to see the information being soaked up by students, and then you see it later on regurgitated in different and new ways,” Hancock said.

Student Phillip Osterhout said, “As a veteran, he has a very unique outlook on things.”

Not only does Hancock teach students, he’s also learning.

Hancock is an Arabic and Russian languages major who’s studying for the LSAT, the law school aptitude test.

“Inevitably you’re going to be older than the people in college or wherever you choose to be, you’ll be older than most of them,” he said. “You’ll have different life experiences, not better, but different, and ones that a lot of people are never going to have.”

Hancock acknowledged the challenges of transitioning to civilian life.

“Whether you’re in for four years or you’re in for 20, it’s not any easier to leave a brotherhood and something that you’ve been a part of and an integral piece into something that you’re just another number,” he said.

But his artwork and his teaching are helping Hancock become more than just a number.

“I used to mourn by just drinking,” Hancock said. “But I guess how I mourn now is through proactive initiatives to attempt to give people information about what a veteran’s going through.”

When he mourns, he creates his masterpieces.

“I just allow for the art to dictate where it wants to go, because who am I to question what it is that I’m trying to say, when I don’t even know what it is I’m trying to say.”

The National Veterans Art Museum in Chicago exhibits works by combat veterans. It is showing Hancock’s work in a nine-month exhibit that began on Nov. 11, Veterans Day.

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