Military Life

Bullets and Band-Aids: From Isolation to Empowerment

Jessica Evans Avatar
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Bullets and Band-Aids is a non-profit organization. It offers veterans a creative outlet to share their stories by connecting them with writers and artists. In this way, they’re able to tell their stories without judgment. The mission is to bridge the gap between veterans and civilians through storytelling and art, promoting a shared sense of humanity.

Imagine returning home from a deployment, receiving a perfunctory, “Thank you for your service,” and then feeling utterly and completely alone.

Many veterans face this issue. Transitions can be challenging. It’s difficult for veterans to connect with those who haven’t had similar experiences.

Former Marine infantryman and the founder and Executive Director of Bullets and Band-Aids, Robert LeHeup, had this experience. Like many veterans, when he returned from his war, LeHeup found himself without words. Worse, he felt isolated, alone, and without a community.

Then, a TEDx talk gave him a chance to tell his story about a profound moment at the American Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Everything changed for Robert after that event. Not only did he find the words he’d been needing to express himself, but LeHeup also recognized something important – other veterans also needed an outlet.

“The style of courage it takes to tell your story is a style of courage that isn’t often taught. So that’s what we’re doing – giving veterans a platform to speak their truth and we guarantee it’s heard,” LeHeup said.

bullets and band-aids logo
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What makes Bullets and Band-Aids different

The organization pairs veteran participants with civilian writers and artists who help to retell their experiences through various mediums, including written narratives, audio recordings and visual art.

“We do this to reinforce our shared human journey and commonality,” LeHeup said.

The process begins with veterans speaking to a fellow veteran in an interview, followed by the involvement of civilian writers and artists who delve into the shared human experiences depicted in the interviews.

“This is the dialogue we want to facilitate because it proves to the veteran that their story isn’t just heard; it’s digested.”

Empathy is tantamount to this relationship. Writer, artist and veteran work in tandem to produce art that highlights a veteran story. The resulting art and storytelling exhibitions showcase not only tales of war, but the full spectrum of the veterans’ experiences.

“If we’re going to shine a light on the depth and breadth of the human condition through the hyperbolic lens of veteran experiences, we need to explore every nook and cranny of what it means to be human,” he added.

LeHeup recognizes that the stories and art shared by veterans can be intense. Due to their relatable and hyperbolic nature, he believes these stories provide an opportunity for individuals from diverse backgrounds to deeply connect by celebrating, mourning, and experiencing being human.

History of Bullets and Band-Aids 

In 2012, Bullets and Band-Aids was founded and in 2019, it officially became a non-profit organization.

The organization creates a living anthology of veterans, writers, and artists through a traveling art project and accompanying book that benefits people from all walks of life. Their events showcase veterans’ trials and ongoing bravery while highlighting the common experiences that bind communities, regardless of past experiences. By celebrating our shared humanity, Bullets and Band-Aids seeks to break down social barriers and promote dignity and respect for all.

B&B’s Approach

There are plenty of veteran-artist organizations out there, like Veterans Writing ProjectThe Red Badge Project, and others. What sets Bullets and Band-Aids apart from other veteran-focused art therapy organizations is their belief in the power of self-expression and their focus on creative outlets. In a word, it’s all about collaboration.

“We do this to reinforce our shared human journey,” LeHeup explained. “The veteran, the civilian artist, and the civilian writer couldn’t produce any of this on their own. The end result is a mutual gratitude.”

Bullets and Band-Aids offers numerous benefits for those who participate. For veterans, sharing their stories with strangers provides an outlet for honesty and empowerment. Telling their story can also open up conversations that lead to support, understanding, and a sense of belonging.

Additionally, the veterans can use their experiences to benefit others and feel a sense of accomplishment. They also receive a high-quality print of a chosen artwork from the show.

Civilian writers and artists also benefit from participating. The effort to understand others and participate in a shared experience brings a greater understanding of the veteran experience outside the combat scope.

bullets and band-aids artwork
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Shared Experiences, No Matter the Conflict

LeHeup emphasizes that although the experiences shared by the veterans are unique, they also have a collective aspect. He notes that the organization focuses on veterans who have served in combat but also includes individuals who have not seen combat but have relationships with veterans, such as those who work or live with them. Participants come from various countries, including Afghanistan, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and Russia.

Current Tour

The fourth iteration of Bullets and Band-Aids will culminate in a six-month installation at the Columbia Museum of Art. This project iteration features voiceovers for selected stories, delivering an immersive experience that aims to break down preconceived notions with significant impact.

As a non-profit, Bullets and Band-Aids relies on the support of the community and volunteers. Find out more about the organization here.