Peter Stewart loaded shells and rockets on the U.S. aircraft carrier Ranger during the Vietnam War. Now he loads his van with brushes and paint and drives to an underpass on the grounds of the West Los Angeles Veterans Administration Hospital in Westwood and sets up shop.
Stewart heads an effort known as the VA Mural Project. He has attracted a team of a dozen veterans, all volunteers, who come every day to paint insignias of their former divisions or pictures of the various service medals on the underpass walls. On one wall, dedicated to the medical staff of the hospital, Stewart paints from photos he has taken of the hospital's doctors and technicians.
Most of the artists are homeless or in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs. Materials for the project are paid for with donations, mainly from passersby who stop their cars and write checks.
"I was on the verge of being homeless," Stewart said. "I didn't want to blame the war for my problems. . . . The only thing I could do right was art, and it healed me."
Now he wants to use art to heal other veterans as a possible first step toward helping them find jobs. With 25,000 square feet of wall space to cover in the underpass, the men have plenty of room to express themselves.
Ray Essak sleeps in his car and comes out to paint every day. He admits it's the only time he feels he is doing something meaningful. Charlie Saulenas is painting his 9th Infantry Division insignia.
"This is the first time in 25 years I've expressed my pride," Saulenas said. "It feels good."