By Sarah Bean
James Mellick pulls life out of maple, walnut and cedar, telling stories of dogs with bright eyes and attentive tails — and battle scars.
In 2015, Mellick created the Wounded Warrior Dogs collection. Eight sculptures tell the stories of military dogs with various injuries, each one representing an injury their veteran counterparts have suffered from. The eighth is a plain box with a flag draped over it. Mellick’s initial aspiration was to raise awareness about veterans, but it soon became a means of healing injuries that go unseen.
Approximately 10-20% of war veterans suffer from PTSD. Many of them do not receive help. A doctor can help them re-learn how to walk on a prosthetic, or ease torn muscles back into use, but even this can often go unseen by the very people who cheer for their heroes.
Mellick, a former art professor at Cedarville University, wanted to remind citizens of these injuries and raise compassion for our veterans. However, he could not have known just how much good his work would accomplish.
The dogs have been displayed in multiple museums around the U.S. Veterans walk the reverberant halls, looking at a painting or relic of one thing or another. They turn the corner and find themselves face to face with a carved wooden dog, perhaps cedar or maple. And as they look into its glassy eyes, they see themselves.
Many times, Mellick has watched as thousands of people walk past. Many of them glance at the dogs and move on, some linger, and some — some become part of the exhibit itself.
A soldier with one leg walked up to one of the eight dogs and smiled.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, but specific examples of those stories would show up at the exhibit,” Mellick marvels. “People who could have been intimately involved with the story, who could have been a part of the story. I told the story sight unseen and [now] I have a picture of an Afghanistan veteran with his leg missing standing right next to the dog with its leg missing, and so it became a perfect allegory.”
During their tour through the U.S., Mellick has seen every one of his stories come to life. Even the eighth sculpture, the casket under the flag, showed up in some way.
Under the Flag
Mellick watches as a woman, sharply dressed in an airline attendant uniform, walks through the crowded Amway Plaza hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Forty-four thousand people have attended this exhibit, but one of them has seen more than the rest. She walks up to him and tells her story: “I’m a Delta Airlines attendant and I bring the bodies home.”
Shocked, Mellick responds: “Wow, this is my first time!”
Mellick laughs. “Imagine you were an author, and you wrote this story about a person, and you made up this person, and then at the reading of it the actual person shows up,” he says. “That idea, it was a good guess on your part as to the character you evolved in your writing, and this character actually shows up.”
Time and time again, Mellick was asked if these sculptures were of any particular military dogs. Soon he realized that specific stories would resonate with handlers and civilians just as much, if not more than the general ones. And so, he began his new collection: Canine War Stories.
Cpl. Patrick Tutko and his dog Jajo were an inseparable team injured in Afghanistan. While the pair were searching for explosives, an enemy remotely set one off, injuring both. While one of the patients was canine, and there was no veterinarian at the camp, both were treated with the respect of a true serviceman.
The two were later brought to better medical facilities, and the recovering pair was reunited.
”Foreign Policy reported that while the corporal was not ‘initially aware of his visitor, the German shepherd licked his outstretched hand as he lay in his hospital bed,’” Mellick writes on his website. “Moments later, an eye opened as Jajo licked his hand again and the Soldier was alert enough to give his friend a loving cuddle.”
A charity paid for Tutko and his wife to visit the Marine Museum where Mellick was showing his sculpture of Jajo. Little did Mellick know, the couple had put Jajo down just weeks before.
Mellick makes no money from showing these dogs. He does not sell them for profit or fame.
“I’m rewarded by the good that they do for people. And the healing process. That’s the other thing I’ve found out through these real stories,” he said. “When I start telling the stories about the real dogs, then the veterans who are still alive that might have been handlers for that dog — some of them might have PTSD, some of them might be depressed — and for all the veterans who come up to this show there’s this unraveling of emotion that’s just peeled back. And they’d be talking about their experience itself. In a way, I discovered that this artwork was healing, and that healing aspect then became the main purpose for the show.”
Art therapy has been used successfully to treat PTSD and other psychological traumas. Creativity allows a safe place for veterans to express difficult concepts and ideas so they and their families can understand.
Tricia Winklosky writes in an article for the Hope for the Warriors website: “For many service members, nonverbal expression of memories, feelings and thoughts to others is a relief. The artwork provides a safe way to depict and confront recurrent nightmares, flashbacks, and traumatic memory. Nonverbal expression in a safe treatment setting is a critical step in processing combat trauma.”
While viewing art is not as effective as creating it, viewing the difficult topics of war and loss in the safe packages of these dogs allows for conversation to open between the veterans and their families.
“I’ve had families tell me that they have not had that emotional experience since visiting the Vietnam wall,” Mellick said. “I hadn’t thought about it like that.
“They were surviving with worse injuries than those coming back from Vietnam, because they probably wouldn’t have come back from Vietnam. They would have died in the field. But because the medical tech is so much better now, we have veterans coming back with a lot worse injuries.
“The original [intent] was to remind people we have to take care of [veterans]. And then later on, I found out there was this emotional healing taking place, too. So now the main purpose of this exhibit is to get veterans to tell their story and just … the immediate healing effect that seeing this exhibit has with people.”
However, for many veterans, healing is not so simple. Many soldiers survive the horrors of the front lines only to relive them again and again in their own minds. And many of them do not get the help they need.
Waiting to Go
German shepherd Robbie and his handler, Tech. Sgt. David M. Simpson, served in the Air Force as an explosive detection team during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. Robbie served for many years both at home and abroad, providing explosive detection for presidential visits here and anti-terrorism measures in Iraq.
In 2014, the retired military dog was adopted by his former handler. While Simpson may not have come home with clear injuries, like the many who leave life or limb overseas, he was greatly affected by his service.
Simpson contracted Lyme disease while in Iraq, as well as PTSD and paranoia. These caused him both physical and mental pain.
Three years after adopting Robbie, Simpson took his own life.
Mellick’s sculpture displays a mournful Robbie lying on his handler’s uniform, waiting patiently. Mellick writes: “He is looking up and off into the distance, but there is no one on the other end of the leash.”
These sculptures have brought healing and openness to many viewers, but they have also helped Mellick himself in stressful times.
The coronavirus pandemic shut down most of the country in March of 2020. Confined to his home, Mellick spent much of the spring in his studio, working on his newest projects.
“I had this morbid idea where, I might die and they might never be done, so I’m getting those pieces done,” he said. “That’s how much the news had scared me. “
But then summer came, and with it the enticing call of sunlight and warm earth. He left his studio for a time to focus on another form of healing: gardening. Even better, sunny days allowed for families to meet on the patio, socializing while still keeping a safe distance.
And then fall chill came, and with it the reminder of isolation. Mellick returned to his studio and put his stress into his work.
He finished “Judy” in mid-November.
Judy’s story is one of survival. She was a military dog who was on multiple torpedoed ships and trains during World War II. When the soldiers she worked with were captured and sent to a Japanese work camp, they trained her to hide in the woods until right before they boarded the next train or ship. They then whistled for her to jump into one of the soldiers’ bags. When they finally arrived at the camp, she went completely unnoticed by the guards. Instead of being eaten herself, she brought small pieces of food to the starving prisoners. She even had multiple litters of puppies, one of which ended up being her salvation.
The commandant of the prison camp was trying to impress a girl in the next town over. Frank Williams, one of Judy’s handlers, brought the commandant one of her puppies, explaining that he could present it to the woman as a gift. The commandant, who may have been slightly inebriated at the time, accepted this, and even signed papers designating Judy as an official POW. Because they could not add any numbers, Frank gave her his with an added letter: 81 A.
Many times, the dog was nearly eaten or shot, and Frank presented these papers, saving her life.
“It’s a wonderful story of adversity, especially during COVID right now,” Mellick said. “You just have to read these Prisoner of War stories and what they had to endure, and you realize your life’s pretty good.”
To see more of Mellick’s work, you can explore his website at jamesmellick.com.