Artist takes his craft to war and back again
Commercial artist and soldier Poto Liefi (Photo: NBC News)
When Poto Liefi awoke on September 11, 2001 he wasn't thinking about being a soldier or going to war. He was a 38-year-old commercial artist working in Los Angeles, and he had just helped launch a new Sketchers shoe campaign for Target. He was good at what he did and enjoyed the work.
After Poto pivoted from fine arts to commercial arts – a few years out of art school – he went from working on clothing and backpack lines to designing shoes.
"I learned how to create a product line," he said. "And I also learned where my work fit relative to the entire product line."
He followed his work for Sketchers with a line of hiking boots that, in turn, turned into Taos footwear, a women's shoe company.
Then the World Trade Center towers fell, and the Pentagon was hit.
He decided to join the Army. Most of his colleagues in the designer world thought he was crazy. Even his recruiter – after visiting his expansive glass office – asked why he was leaving a comfortable world behind.
"I wasn't satisfied with work anymore," Poto said. "I had the news going all the time, and I felt a sense of responsibility to do something."
The maximum age for recruits had just been upped from 34 to 42 when Poto showed up to Fort Jackson for basic training as a 38 year-old recruit. "I lucked out big time," he said.
After boot camp he was given a 25M Multimedia Illustrator designation. "At first I thought it was stupid to get paid peanuts for the same job I was doing on the outside," he said. "But after I did the research I saw there was a lot more to it."
Poto was assigned to 304th Psychological Operations Company, and in 2008 he deployed to Fallujah, Iraq. He immediately put his skills to work on posters, billboards, and web content.
"I was surprised at what we were able to do with the proper messaging," he said. "We actually had campaigns, branding the Iraqi Security Forces. We were getting a good, consistent message on the streets, and getting locals to rally around an ideology."
He returned to the U.S. at the end of 2008. Less than a year and a half later he was deployed again, this time to Afghanistan with the 344th Psychological Operations Company.
"Just as I'd sold Iraq to the Iraqis I had to sell Afghanistan to Afghans."
Part of the time Poto worked with the Australian Army based in Uruzgan, and there he realized they needed to deviate from the standard Army playbook to be effective.
"We had to take our military goggles off," he said. "We weren't the only media outlet the locals were exposed to."
But in spite of the challenges Poto believes they accomplished their mission. He sums up his experience at war with a simple thought: "Pride shows."
He returned home in March of 2011, a 43-year-old corporal ready to transition back to the civilian workforce. But it was anything but a smooth process. Reintegration was tough in spite of his pre-military work experience, a circumstance he blames on his age and the stigma of post traumatic stress. It took him three years to find a full-time job.
He finally landed a job as a supply chain manager at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Corona, California.
Poto's transition advice to veterans following him back to the civilian side is straightforward: "Never feel entitled," he said. "Be thankful, be respectful, and be real still."
At the same time he held fast to his creative side. One day he took the image of a soldier who'd fallen in Iraq – PFC Corrina Lau – and superimposed it into a classic war poster. The result was powerful and immediate.
"I got very emotional reactions from the first people I showed the artwork to," Poto said. "They said things like, 'This is alive.'"
Poto did similar artwork for the families of other fallen warriors, and the response compelled him to brand the effort "Freedom's On Me."
"Freedom's On Me is a way to keep the legacies of these service members alive," Poto explains. "These are people that were in the military, not a bunch of robots."
See more about Poto's artwork at Freedomsonme.com and on Facebook.