When America went to war in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, the words “Support our troops” came from the lips of war supporters on television and appeared on magnetic yellow ribbons across the country.
Now the conflict in Afghanistan is the longest US military engagement in history. There are 2.6 million veterans of that war and of Operation Iraqi Freedom, many of whom have mental and physical war wounds that may never heal. Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety and other tolls of combat, a dozen military veterans commit suicide every day, according to the Veterans Administration — and now the ribbons and verbal “support” are gone.
The Veterans Alley Project testifies to the experience of American servicemen. Today, in Shannon Alley, between Tayor, Jones, Geary and O’Farrell streets, memorials are painted of the nearly 5,000 American servicemen who died in the War on Terror and the many others who suffered in peacetime.
SF Evergreen recently spoke with Amos Gregory, a photographer and first Gulf War veteran, who came up with the idea of dedicating a swath of downtown San Francisco to troops returning home.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
SF Evergreen: How did the idea come about?
Amos Gregory: I sat and walked around the Tenderloin for about six months. I was out very late until early in the morning. Like, 3 a.m. to 6 p.m. I was specifically looking for homeless vets to photograph and trying to give them a positive self-image of themselves. That’s the last thing you have, right? A positive self-image.
Same thing I do in Veterans Alley I started in Cuba in 2002 and that was photographing children, but I mainly tried to show the diversity of Cuba and show the impact of the African diaspora. That project led to another photography project called Children of the African Diaspora. I started to explore children of the African diaspora in different places.
I ended up in Vietnam in 2005 for the 33-year celebration of the fall of Saigon. I met some of my heroes there and photographed some Vietnamese women and their children in front of a few vets, including my uncle, to show the healing that had taken place. That became the ‘Children of the Diaspora’ project, so I opened it up to children.
The only reason the photography led to the painting is that I was shooting a very special homeless vet, Gabriel, Archangel of the Bay. His real name is Gilbert Lovato, of the United States Marine Corps. He had been on the street the longest. One night I was rolling around with Gabe. Gabe was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met in my life.
He said, “Hey man, if you really want to do something for this neighborhood and this community, and you really think you want to do something for the Tenderloin, do something for this alley!” We were smoking cigarettes outside the alley and I thought, ‘Damn it! Black Jesus! We need something! Come in.” I turned and it was a face!
SFEG: How was Shannon Alley used to be?
AG: It was “Crack Alley” when I got there. Before that it was “Body Alley”. I was like, “Okay, here we go, Gabe.” I knew this was Gabe, and Gabe had been on the street and was kind of a hero to everyone on the street. He was brilliant, an archangel to them all. The toughest of the toughest and he just challenged me, I better figure out what’s wrong. I was like, “Okay, let’s paint murals.”
SFEG: How did the murals, like the one with a cross for every dead person in Iraq, come about?
AG: For some of them I design it so that the mural is so big that I need help. I design it so anyone with basic writing skills can come and participate. For the mural of all the names of soldiers killed in Iraq, more than 40 people from all over the world stood in solidarity to make the names over a 10-week period. That is real.
I put out a call for help to Swords to Plowshares to come to the rescue and none of them did. I yelled at everyone from Swords to deep, deep in the VA. I wanted a promise of, “Check this shit and get free lunches.”
They didn’t. No one showed up to the official press release. That is the truth. It’s all done by me.
The first design was done with Richard Barksdale. He was doing his community service by being caught tagging a bank during “Occupy” and I agreed to get him involved in the project. He did the first draft.
There was another person named Taharka. He was a 19-year-old student who had been following me for a year. He was the backbone of the project from start to finish.
It was JJ down the street who had come to clean up with us, even though he was having seizures.
It was a huge community effort, but the point is that many of the murals were done by other vets. So the things I describe that are personal to me, other vets have had to go through. The Santos family and Brian Parker. There had to be over a hundred damn people involved in that mural. I was grateful to be able to facilitate it. Also featuring the Chelsea Manning mural and Aaron Hinde and Iraq Veterans Against the War and Vietnam Veterans Against the War. All the way to David Moraz, who does it solo. Cowboy, who does it alone. Randy Figures, doing it solo. Amanda Brannan, doing it solo. Maria, who does it solo. There’s so much in it.
Photo of Amos Gregory by Kevin Kelleher/Special to SF Evergreen