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Gulf War veteran turns combat memories into art, healing

David McGee veteran and artist
Posted at 8:55 PM, Jul 05, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-05 22:06:49-04

CINCINNATI — Sometimes what goes down on the canvas is a far cry from the "Happy Little Trees" painter Bob Ross once spoke about. Instead, they can be labeled as "The Gateway to Hell" and depict the reality of war.

Looking at a colored-pencil drawing of black, burning-oil smoke-filled skies over Kuwait and the bright orange and yellows showcasing the burning fires of the oil well heads themselves, artist David McGee explains what prompted him to call it "The Gateway to Hell."

"That's what I saw as I approached it. I spent 31 days without ever seeing the sun," he said. “I was in Iraq and I was caught in a blast. Threw me, injured my back, my neck and my shoulders.”

David McGee showing Craig McKee a painting

To this day, McGee has no feeling in his left arm and deals with swelling and pain tied to his injuries from the blast.

He was serving in the U.S. Marine Corps as a Combat Engineer, working enemy intelligence and reconnaissance missions.

“I got to see 15 different countries and met some great people and had some experiences both good and bad,” McGee said.

Being a Combat Engineer wasn’t his first choice -- he wanted to be a Combat Artist, sketching out the scenes of war like so many artists had done before him. The passion for drawing and creating with paints or pencils has always been a part of him.

“If Mom and Dad were here, they'd tell you I was drawing and painting before I could write my name,” McGee said.

David McGee tank painting

His art has helped him work through his post-service life.

“I only knew one thing: find things, blow things up and eliminate things. There's not much out in the real world to relate that to, you know, so you, the whole pressures of the world providing for the family, what do you do for yourself,” McGee said. “It's a crushing weight, so you feel like the world is on your shoulders.”

That weight has lifted some over the years and he hopes he can encourage other veterans to use pencil and paints to start their own healing expression.

“As you're doing it you're remembering everything you experienced and what you went through, and you start to realize that you're not there,” McGee said. “It's what you let those memories do to you that makes the difference.”

During the pandemic and COVID-19 restrictions, he and several other veteran artists met virtually to continue painting, working together through an offshoot of art therapy.

David McGee painting

McGee's art goes beyond the scenes of war – his pieces show his love for many things, ranging from classic motorcycles and cars to what he sees as his true calling.

“One of my passions is living history, being a living historian myself,” McGee said. “I just have a love for our nation and our nation’s history.”

You can check out David McGee's art and even meet him in person during Pendleton Art Studio's monthly Final Friday, which takes place the last Friday of the month from 5 pm to 9 pm. You can also check out some of his work through his website and reach out for more details on using art as a way to cope and heal.

If you have a veteran story to tell in your community, email homefront@wcpo.com. You also can join the Homefront Facebook group, follow Craig McKee on Facebook and find more Homefront stories here.

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