When a veteran comes home from war with an obvious injury, like a missing arm, they know they'll have to talk about it.
Some vets get so used to telling that war wound story, it becomes almost routine.
What’s harder to talk about, and to understand, are the invisible injuries.
That's why a nonprofit called Fashion Has Heart is pairing wounded vets with graphic designers.
Together, they create t-shirts and combat boots that reflect each vet's experience.
And right now they’re on display at ArtPrize, where anybody can buy - and wear - the results.
An injured Marine tells his story
One of those vets is Chris Weirs. He does not look like the artsy type.
At 6"4, he’s a burly marine vet with a shaggy blonde beard and camo print ball cap.
Yet the t-shirt he designed is striking: it’s a simple, dark gray image of a line of Humvees on a desert road.
That road is riddled with holes from IED explosions.
“And I have all the IED holes filled with blood,” Weirs explains, gesturing to his shirt.
“Kinda representing all the blood shed representing all the IED injuries that have happened in Iraq.”
In 2005, Weirs convoy hit an IED in Iraq.
That day, Weirs' buddy, Lance Cpl. Daniel McVicker, was driving.
"And so I got in the backseat, and McVicker hopped in the driver seat and we started driving,” says Weirs.
“I think we got up to about 25, maybe 35 miles per hour. And he was kind of off to the side of the road.
And I reached forward with my right arm to hit him on the shoulder to tell him to get back in the middle of the road. And my hand never got to his shoulder."
McVicker and another marine were both killed instantly.
Weirs was thrown from the Humvee. He was seriously injured – nerve damage, burns, a traumatic brain injury.
His right arm is now paralyzed.
Veterans, meet these graphic designers
When Weirs got home, he heard about a tiny new nonprofit trying to get off the ground in Grand Rapids.
They were pairing wounded vets with graphic designers to create individualized T-shirt and combat boots.
Ideally, the designs would say something about the vets' experience. And they'd be sold to the public at $25 a pop.
Tyler Way is one of the brains behind Fashion Has Heart.
He’s a professional designer, and says the idea came when he met a young veteran who’d lost the use of his vocal chords.
But through his communicator, he was able to tell Way that he’d had a longtime fascination with designing a T-shirt of his own.
“And that kind of sparked the idea of, well what if we bring these wounded veterans, enable them to design their own T-shirts, have them actually be the creative minds behind the designs?” says Way.
Getting veterans to go beyond the "war wounds" story
That's when things got tricky.
All the wounded vets they worked with had stories, obviously – tragic, dramatic stories about their physical injuries.
But they've told these stories a million times over.
You can see how Weirs uses the same phrasing when he tells his story in this promo video for Fashion Has Heart, right up to describing how his “hand never made it to [McVicker’s] shoulder.”
The problem is, good images get at an actual feeling, even if those images are just on a T-shirt.
And feelings are exactly what the routine stories are meant to detour, so a vet doesn't have to relive the experience every time.
Designer Tyler Way says that's when the artists and graphic designers had to dig.
“Because they do have this story that they go to, that they know, and they’ve told and told and told,” he says.
“So what an artist brings to the table is a different way of seeing things. If the veteran says one thing, that may trigger something in the artists’ mind.
And from there it kinda snowballs.
We got white boards, and said ok, if we put this word down, let’s see where that can take us. So we just kind of go down all these different rabbit holes.”
So, the process is kind of…therapeutic?
Maybe, says Way.
“We’re not therapists. We don’t know what we’re doing! But we do understand the creative process. And we can use that to benefit the artists and the veterans and everyone involved.”
The results go public
For Chris Weirs, the marine vet, making this T-shirt took the images out of his head and put them where everyone could see them.
“It’s nice to see all the people that come through, that actually you can see the appreciation on their face for all the things veterans have gone through. It’s nice to see that people care.”
So has he seen anyone buy his shirt?
“Oh yeah!” laughs Weirs. When they first came on display at ArtPrize, the T-shirts sold like hot cakes.
“Someone was buying one every five or ten minutes. It was nice.”
That money goes back into the nonprofit, to bring in a new group of wounded veterans next year.
Next up for Fashion Has Heart: Way says they’re displaying the work at the Forbes Art Gallery in New York City.