Project Overview

VETERAN: Rachel Putney

ARTIST: Colin Bright
INSTAGRAM: @colindrawz

VIDEOGRAPHER: Joey SzelaThe Main Idea

WORKSPACE: The Main Idea



State 01: Vermont

JULY 11-12, 2017

This design is apart of the HAS HEART 50 States Project

Serving as both a ground medic in Iraq and as a flight medic aboard a helicopter in South Korea, U.S. Army Veteran Rachel Putney learned the balance of taking care of others while also taking care of herself. Representative of her time serving at the Logistics Base Seitz, labeled “Mortaritaville” due to the 700 mortars landing on the base from 2004-2005, the unexploded mortar centering the design also serves as a representation of Rachel’s “controlled detonation” in which she, as a trained medic, recognized signs of depression, PTSD, and anxiety in herself and took steps of self-care through seeking help and the acceptance of being honorably discharged. Rachel balances her dedication to the military, her experience serving as a medic, and her current position counseling Norwich University’s Corps of Cadets with her ongoing path of healing and self-care.

In the design, balance is represented by the mortar being stabilized between two helmets: a traditional soldier’s helmet (left) and an aviation helmet (right). The two helmets also represent the dichotomies in Rachel’s life: soldier and civilian, ground medic and flight medic, care for others and self-care, teacher and student, among others. Aviation wings Rachel received when she completed flight medic training carry the design just as a helicopter carries its crew members and passengers. Representing the Black Hawk medical helicopters in South Korea, yellow stripes adorn the wings. Ultimately, the design elements merge together to form the shape of a caduceus, the medical symbol of the Army since 1902. Swirling together to further control the potential detonation of the mortar, the fire carries the latin translation of self- sacrifice and self-preservation, an additional reminder of the internal conflict many soldiers and Veterans face on a daily basis.

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Click on the coloring page or download button to open in a new window, then find the “Print” icon on the bottom toolbar. Be sure to select the “Print on Both Sides” option to ensure the Veteran’s story is printed on the back.

Behind The Process

Written by: Kendra Clapp Olguín
Photos by: StaciAnne Grove

There we all sat on a sofa and side chairs in The Main Idea’s studio, overlooking the corner of College and the idyllic Church Street. The week after 4th of July, some were still in vacation-mode, walking about the brick Church Street Marketplace with their shopping bags and Ben & Jerry ice cream cones in hand.

Graphic designer Colin Bright pointed out the Burlington City Hall and Park across the street where Senator Bernie Sanders worked.

“We could see if he can stop by; I think I have his office number in here somewhere,” Veteran Rachel Putney says nonchalantly as she scrolls through her contact list on her phone.

“Yeah, I think I know someone that works in his office,” Colin offers. 

To non-Vermonters, it may come across as odd, casually calling up one of the presidential candidates from the 2016 election, however, it was actually so typically Vermont. Another example of Vermont’s kindred nature is when Colin and Rachel met each other as strangers the first day of the Vermont state-project, it took them just a couple of minutes to realize the several friends they had in common.

“Meeting Rachel was very quintessential of meeting someone in Vermont in that we were already connected in three or four ways, though we hadn’t met in person,” Colin later expressed.

To be from Vermont means being separated from everyone by only two degrees. The proximity establishes a standard of friendliness that results in people offering those from out of town help finding where they are going, a woman in Starbucks leaving her purse and phone on the table near the door as she goes to use the restroom, and neighborly waves from the cars passing by. Starting in Vermont was the ideal way to begin the 50 States: Veterans + Artists United tour. What better place to demonstrate the commonality between the civilian and military worlds than in a state whose inhabitants are already eager to connect.

After graduating high school, Rachel realized she wasn’t ready for college. An eager 17 year-old working in an insurance company’s mailroom, she felt unfulfilled and ready for adventure. In the spring of 2001, she drove down to the Springfield, Massachusetts, Army Recruitment Center and joined as a medic. She hands Colin a photo of herself with her recruiter Sergeant Ploof, laughs, and comments on her 17 year-old’s BCG’s, AKA “birth control glasses.”

Over the next two days we’d all get to know Rachel’s, at times, self-deprecating humor that demonstrates her phenomenal ability of not taking herself too seriously. Only a month into basic training in Colorado, the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001, forever transformed the United States and its military. For many who joined the military because they weren’t ready for college, to get out of their small town, wanted direction or discipline in their life, craved to travel, or followed in their family’s footsteps, they found themselves facing something that they understood might happen when they enlisted, but never could truly comprehend until that moment.

“I remember reading the Army Times and seeing a photo of someone I went to basic training with that got killed in Iraq and I thought to myself, ‘Oh, shit. This is real,’” Rachel recalled. It was then that she realized the seriousness of joining the Army.

Several months later, Rachel’s life changed again: she was pregnant. As her then-husband was also a soldier, one of them had the opportunity to leave the military. They decided, since he had been in the Army longer, that Rachel would leave.

“Yes, I got out of the Army just 18 months after I initially joined,” she laughed.

When her then-husband was later injured in Iraq and returned home, she saw an opportunity to return to the military.

“He was getting medically discharged and I thought, ‘Oh, since you’re getting out, I’ll rejoin,’” she says. When asked what drew her back, Rachel takes a crack at the difficult task of conveying what many feel: the cultural magnetism of the military.

“When I joined the Army, I loved it immediately. I loved the structure of it, the camaraderie, I loved working 18-hour days with people that hated and loved it as much as you did. I loved it all,” she explains.

In June of 2004, she was officially back. On December 24, 2004, she arrived in Iraq serving at the Logistics Base Seitz, commonly labeled “Mortaritaville” due to the 700 mortars landing on the base from 2004-2005.

As she recalls the numerous close-calls with unexploded mortars landing on her base in a tone like she’s telling next week’s weather forecast, Colin’s eyebrows raise in shock, higher and higher as she continues. Seeing his reaction, Rachel tries to contextualize her experiences, “It was just this daily thing. It was actually scarier when there would be a couple of days without any; It was almost comforting when they would happen daily.”

Although living in a constant state of alertness, she enjoyed her time as a combat medic in Iraq. “That red cross is a soldier’s safety blanket,” she explains. “They knew that there were people that would take care of them. I was there to help anyone that was hurt.”

It was serving in Iraq that Rachel’s view on the notion of care began to complicate. “I really care a lot about other people and I have always put other people before myself,” Rachel self-reflects. “You have to remember to take care of yourself before you have to take care of other people and that’s what I forgot to do for a long time in the Army. In Iraq, there was at least a group of us taking care of each other. In South Korea, because it was just me as the lone medic on a helicopter, it was tough to remember.” When she returned from Iraq, Rachel reenlisted in the Spring of 2006, choosing to attend flight medic school at Fort Rucker in Alabama. By July of 2006, she went to Camp Casey in South Korea where she served onboard a Black Hawk Medical Helicopter with yellow stripes on it, identifying it as an unarmed helicopter allowed to fly in North Korea. While she enjoyed her time serving in Iraq, Rachel is ambivalent toward her experience in South Korea but lights up when talking about riding in a helicopter. She paints a picture for Colin of what it was like flying over the sea, rice paddies, and mountains, describing her feet hanging out of the open doors as “best thing ever.”

More than ten years later, she still gets choked up when she sees medical helicopters in the sky. Although not combative, the environment in Korea was intensive. “The majority of my patients were drunk and got hurt because that’s what you do in Korea. When you’re not working, you drink. It’s not a war zone, no gunshots, no explosions, none of those types of injuries. It was emergent in another way,” she explains.

No longer working with a medical group like she did in Iraq as a combat medic, Rachel felt the tremendous weight of being the only medic onboard the helicopter as a flight medic. “Us medics were constantly working in rotation,” she tells Colin. “That is what started to wear me down mentally. I was always working so I had this heightened sense that there would be a call.”

After her deployment to South Korea, Rachel arrived to Fort Drum in New York. She felt at home. “I loved it. It was near Vermont and they had this medical training building that when you go inside it, it looks like you’re in Iraq.” she recalls. “They even played the sound effects from Black Hawk Down!” 

Yet, it was here that Rachel’s struggles materialized. “I had a panic attack when I was getting ready to go into the training building… I was standing outside the door and I began to sweat. I couldn’t open the door. They were waiting and waiting. I finally went in. When I was finished and got out, I burst into tears and I remember thinking, ‘What’s wrong with me?’”

Within the next few months, her mental state worsened. “I remember getting to work one day and asking someone, ‘How do you deal with all of this; The stress, losing patients, etc.?’ It wasn’t really an issue for them. They seemed fine with it, which wasn’t super helpful for me. If they can deal with it, why couldn’t I?”

By February of 2008, Rachel recognized some suicidal tendencies within herself, called her mother to come take care of her son Alex, and told her boss, “I am thinking of killing myself and I know that’s not normal.” However low of a moment that was for her, Rachel pokes fun at the way in which she had to ironically organize and “plan her breakdown.” Her boss drove her to the hospital where she admitted herself into Inpatient Mental Health for ten days and what she calls “one of the best vacations of my life.”

“Being in the looney bin [sic] is amazing,” she recalls. “You do puzzles, you pick your meals, and you do arts and crafts. It’s just like the movies. We even made friendship bracelets but they were taken away from us in case we wanted to harm ourselves with them.” However comically she described it, we all could assume and dread what came next.

“It was helpful to be in a place where you didn’t have any stressors, but it was also the last straw for the Army. Basically they said, ‘Well, I don’t think you are going to get any better,’” Rachel says in a disappointing tone.

“I felt awful. It felt like I was being divorced and I didn’t want a divorce. It was as if my spouse didn’t want anything to do with me anymore.” She was placed in a Warrior Transition Unit, a unit where the Army sends all the “broken people,” she explains. “It was a great support system because you’re surrounded by people like you. My job was to go to medical appointments all of the time. My wounds were not physical. I was going to psychologists, social workers, etc.” There were, however, bumps in the road.

“At one point they were trying to point that my psychological issues were there previous to my enlistment in the Army. They referenced how I saw a psychologist when my parents had gotten divorced.” After six years of being in the Army, Rachel was medically discharged for depression and PTSD. “I thought I was going to be in the Army for 20 years,” Rachel commented.

Colin then asked her how she felt toward the Army after everything. Rachel responds tactfully, “From a business sense, it made sense because I was taking up a spot.” On a personal level, while Rachel felt betrayed, her dedication to and respect for the Army remained and still remains strong.

Not one to move slowly, Rachel returned to Randolph, Vermont, and began college just a month after leaving the Army. Located nearby, the military college of Vermont, Norwich University, provided a somewhat familiar environment for Rachel. Yet, after she found herself yelling at an inconsiderate student interrupting her precalculus professor, she realized she needed more time to adjust and turned to online classes to do so.

“Transitioning back to civilian life was a lot different than I expected,” Rachel expressed. “Going right into a college setting, the age difference and maturity was definitely an issue. Fortunately with technology nowadays, I could still work on my education online and take the time I needed for that transition process and really start figuring out what was going on with me and how I fit in, now not in the military.”

In the years following, Rachel graduated from Norwich with a degree in Biological Sciences, married her husband and fellow Army Veteran Paul whom she had met when she was 17 years-old, went on to work as a research assistant on opioid addiction therapies at Dartmouth College, had her daughter Nicole, and eventually accepted a position at Norwich University as a Battalion TAC Non-commissioned Officer in which she counsels and trains students in the Corps of Cadets.

Through these years, Rachel coped with her pain and healing. “Every therapist I ever talked to was someone with a military background because I figured they would understand. I wouldn’t have to explain every acronym or detail that an everyday civilian wouldn’t be aware of,” she says as she recounts her experiences in the years since being discharged honorably. “For six years, I did not speak to someone about my thoughts and concerns and the stuff I was dealing with. I depended on the medication that I’d been given, which is good, but probably not the whole picture of helping me heal.”

It wasn’t until recent that Rachel began working with a therapist who had nothing to do with the military. Everyone can attest that an affinity for familiarity or something you understand is a natural human reaction, especially when one is seeking help. A sense of security, acceptance, and belonging are important to those that may be feeling otherwise. Yet, in Rachel’s experience, she found out that help may come from those you may do not suspect. “Somehow we just clicked right away,” she describes of her current therapist.

“Even within the past two days,” she notes in reference to working with Colin, “he was like, ‘Did you ever think that maybe someone could tell you that the stuff you went through was not normal, and that your reaction actually is normal?’ That really resonated because in the military we are telling people, these are normal situations. I guess it is normal for the military, but as a human, flesh and bones, they are not normal situations.”

In these years of growth and healing, Rachel has gained a new perspective and appreciation of self-care. “Being in the military, you’re not there for yourself. You’re there for the person next to you and the people back in the US if you’re overseas somewhere. You can only put people ahead of you for so long before you have nothing left to give,” she conveys. “Yes, absolutely, the mission is first and you care about your people, but you cannot forget to care about yourself. Even if it’s number two or three, you have to be somewhere on that list [of priorities] or else you cannot take care of anybody else.”

Through the creative process, Rachel wasn’t the only one to question their outlook. “Examining Rachel’s experience through the context of a design project is a much deeper dive than I’ve taken into the experiences of friends of family that have served,” he explained. “The constant challenge in the design process of questioning your assumption and questioning whether or not your graphic conveys the message you’re looking for forces you to examine the conversation through a completely different sense than you would take if you’re only trying to offer support, comfort, or love to someone; It forces you to examine your own assumptions.”

When you haven’t experienced something first-hand, it’s natural to form your own ideas based on information available. In a culture of headlines, sound bites, and Hollywood films combined with the fact that less than 1% of the US population currently serves in the military, ideas can stray from the truth. “I did come in with some symbolism in my head about what I thought Rachel’s experience would have been and what the impact on the lives around her would have been,” he admits. Aware of his assumptions, Colin quickly abandoned them while first talking with Rachel. A quiet, contemplative man, he provided what anyone would want when they share some their greatest life-changing experiences: undivided attention and an open mind.

The funny, painful, bizarre, cherished, and everything in-between, Rachel shared memories of her life and service over the course of those two days. She smiled reminiscing of when she was 17 years-old attending a local baseball game when she met her husband Paul who then had just joined the Army. She thought to herself, “Wow, in the Army, there are probably lots of cute guys like that!” She told the story of one of her favorite patients in Iraq, a pregnant woman caught in a classic wrong-place-wrong-time situation.

“The taxi driver was the man the troops were looking for, but there was a family in the taxi. So this pregnant woman and her family come onto the base and she’s panicking. The doctor and Arabic translator were both male and they generally don’t let females talk to males there. So, as usual, I’m the token female,” Rachel said sardonically. “I’m in the room treating the woman and I have the interpreter and doctor behind the curtain translating whatever I say to her and the doctor is telling me what to do.” To alleviate the situation, Rachel showed the woman a picture of her son. “Everyone has that one connection that proves that there are not bad people in Iraq.”

She told Colin about playing Texas Hold’em every Friday night while serving in “Mortaritaville,” the times in which she would have to care for an injured American soldier and an injured “bad guy” in the same room, and how, while training on the helicopter in South Korea, she would climb down the jungle penetrator (that’s a real thing — look it up) and the pilots would dunk her into the river then dump her on the sand to make her into a “sugar cookie.” Yet, with the bizarre and funny came the rollercoaster of experiences that led Rachel to cultivate depression, anxiety, and PTSD while she continued to focus on the mission and others. Eventually, her mortar detonated.

Rachel is “someone that presents outwardly and is incredibly confident strong and resolute,” Colin senses at the end of the two design days. “She had to go through a pretty destructive process to get there, but she came out using that fire, energy, and passion to temper herself and become stronger for it.”

Inspired by the caduceus insignia of the Army Medical Corps, Colin envisioned one with rotating flames instead of snakes. “As her stories started to become more personal, a lot of what came from them were conflicts of dichotomies,” he noted. Through her life, Rachel has had to balance self-sacrifice and selflessness, being student and teacher, Veteran and civilian, ground and air medic, and a variety of others. Representative of these binaries, the flames carry the latin translation of self-sacrifice and self-preservation.

“Each of those conflicts revolved around a single concept we eventually came to: the controlled detonation. This was manifested in her experiences both in seeing unexploded mortars landing in front of her that had to be dealt with in a responsible way so that the destructive power wouldn’t be unleashed on the community, and then symbolically in having to control her own detonation so that a destructive force wouldn’t let out on the people that she cared most about.”

Within the design, the unexploded mortar, while commemorating her time in Iraq, represents Rachel’s ability to control her own passion, energy, and detonation. The mortar is balanced and contained just as she handled her decision to admit herself to Inpatient Mental Health, to reenlist and become an air medic, and how she’s steadily gaining a grasp on taking better care of herself while still caring for others. However harmoniously things may seem at any given moment, Rachel understands the constant threat of the scale tipping. The two helmets, one combat and the other an air helmet, again represent the many dichotomies in her life. They balance the mortar, holding the potential of denotation if one overpowers the other. “They are tied intrinsically to each other,” Colin says.

By the end of the second day, Rachel and Colin faced the task of titling their design. “The number two kept coming up and we kept finding two sides to everything,” Rachel says referring to the dichotomies in her life. “Deuces are two’s and caduceus kind of sounds similar. It came out as a joke but then we all looked at each other and thought, ‘that’s kind of cool… I dig that.’ It’s also my shameless plug for triple deuces, the 222 Infantry with 10th Mountain Brigade. They spent a lot of time chasing down the guys shooting mortars at us so it’s cool that deuces made it in the title.” Marrying the reoccurring two’s in her life with the medical symbol ultimately felt full-circle for Rachel. “I’ve always known the caduceus was some sort of medical symbol even when I was young because my mom was a nurse so it’s always been important to me.”

Life is riddled with notions and symbols, so much so that they become invisible to many. When they pop up, some may acknowledge them, but then let them float away. Through meeting and working with her fellow Vermonter, Colin, Rachel connected the reoccurring signs and images life gave her during her time serving and continues to give her in her process of healing, creating a new symbol of her very own, maybe even one that will influence the lives of others, Veterans and civilians alike.

For Rachel, she hopes it will give others hope. “I feel like a lot of people have the same battle in their mind, regardless of whether they are or were in the military. In trying to find that balance of taking care of others and taking care of yourself, I hope the design helps others know that they’re not the only one dealing with this.”

While many can relate, Rachel also hopes that the design will particularly speak and reach out to any of her fellow Veterans that may be feeling alone. “I think Veterans will see the connection. We may not be right next you but we’re all part of the same thing. We’re always with you and we’ll always be there with you.” Isn’t it apparent that her service lives on? Rachel will forever be a soldier, there to help.


Written by: Kendra Clapp Olguin
Photos by: Tyler Way