Captured portraits tell veteran stories


When Michael Giraldo saw his military experience transformed into a piece of art, he was immediately taken aback.

In a piece by artist Coco Berkman, Giraldo is seen interacting with a mother and two children in Iraq, a representation of his time in the U.S. Army. He completed two tours of Iraq and worked as an intelligence analyst throughout his eight years of serving the United States before attending and later graduating from Manhattan College.

Berkman’s depiction of Giraldo made the veteran feel seen as someone who was compassionate and as a person who relates to others.

“I fell in love with it because it made me stop for a second and think, ‘You know, I tell my story of my time in the military and I think I’m highlighting certain characteristics about myself or certain aspects of my time in the military,’” Giraldo said. “‘But in fact the person that’s listening is hearing something completely different.’”

The piece also shows Giraldo’s dog on his shoulder as a nod to his life after his military service, something the former soldier thought was a nice touch.

“It hit me deep and I’m glad it showed my puppy,” he said. “I love my golden doodle, and for them to capture that, that was pretty cool.”

Berkman’s piece is part of “Experiencing Veterans and Artists Collaboration,” an art project that aims to bridge the knowledge gap between what it’s like to have a military life and living a traditional civilian life.

In order to achieve that, veterans from multiple generations are interviewed about their experiences in the military, and an audio file from that interview is given to an artist to render a piece they feel is representative of each veteran’s story.

The project is a traveling exhibition that began at Tiffin University in Ohio, and is now on display at Manhattan College’s O’Malley Library through June 21.

Tiana Sloan, director of Manhattan’s Veterans Success Program — which aims to educate veteran students and help them succeed after graduation — finds the project fascinating, especially because it also brings attention to Gold Star Mothers, women who have lost a daughter or son while serving in the military.

“It’s not just veterans serving,” Sloan said. “It’s their families that sacrifice so much while their loved ones are serving.”

Kirsten Battocchio, another Manhattan College alum, is also featured in the exhibition. Artist Emily Sullivan-Smith created a silhouette of Battocchio, displaying only her Marine Corps uniform.

Battocchio spent six years as a Marine, traveling to places like Japan and Sri Lanka and serving in positions such as an aviation maintenance administrator and a Marine security guard.

Upon first glance, Battocchio thinks a lot of people won’t understand the meaning of Sullivan-Smith’s piece. But to her, it makes sense since she spent her interview talking about what it felt like to be one of the few women serving as a Marine.

“A lot of female service members will be able to relate that they don’t want to be seen as ‘the chick’ or ‘the female,’” she said.

“They want to be seen as ‘the Marine.’”

When it comes to preconceived notions of what veterans are like, Battocchio wants people to come to the exhibition with an open mind.

“I think what a lot of people do when they don’t know any service members is that they kind of just paint veterans with a broad brush and they just assume a lot,” she said. “There’s a lot of assumptions when you don’t know a certain demographic, and that always happens with veterans.

“I think looking at the different art pieces — especially since it’s across different generations of veterans — you see how different we all are. And each of our stories are unique, but we’re still very connected with one another. So I think that’s always interesting to see how different our stories can be, and how strong our bond is as a veteran community.”

Sloan has similar sentiments about people’s views on veterans.

“People don’t sign up just for what they perceive the military to do,” she said. “There’s people who enlist because they genuinely want to help people.”

Giraldo experienced a more open dialogue in his day-to-day life when his wife’s parents first saw his portrait. His in-laws don’t really know anyone else who has served in the military, so this gave them a chance to learn more about Giraldo’s time in the Army.

“They let organic conversations happen,” he said. “I think (that) allowed them to ask a couple more questions that I think they probably wanted to ask, but weren’t sure, or anything like that.”

It’s even given Giraldo a chance to be more open about his military experience. “What this project has allowed me to do is make me feel more comfortable talking about this.”

Giraldo hopes people who view the exhibition will want to immerse themselves in learning more about veteran stories across all generations.

“I think if someone can go through the art and … can see the history happening through the eyes of veterans, and seeing how different each one,” he said, “when they walk out, they might want to hear more stories of what people have gone through, through different eras.”

Meanwhile, Sloan wants people to leave the exhibition with the mindset there’s not much of a difference between the veteran’s story they’ve learned about and themselves.

“These are people that are walking among us,” Sloan said. “You may not know that this veteran had this background, but you look at this picture that represents a portion of their life, and it just really speaks to you.”

Michael Giraldo, Coco Berkman, Manhattan College, Experiencing Veterans and Artists Collaboration, O’Malley Library, Tiffin University, Tiana Sloan, Kirsten Battocchio, Emily Sullivan-Smith, Tiffany Moustakas