Inspired by the experiences of Carlos Pagan

"The Mask"

Keef Cross
18″ x 24″ • Digital

Artist Statement

When I read Carlos’ story, I was floored. The type of loss, destruction and carnage he described sounded all too familiar from Hollywood war movies that I had seen. But to know that these were real life accounts of his experiences made me pour myself a drink and truly try to absorb what I had just read. 
When creating my piece, I know I didn’t want to include any of the imagery that he so vividly described , because I didn’t want to trigger any viewers who may have been in similar situations, or know someone that had, so I chose to stick with the overall metaphor of wearing the mask. I put special emphasis on the teeth of the mask as they seem to be the front line of his defense to outsiders looking in, and the smoldering smoke , fire and brimstone fuming from his head , could be interpreted as the darkness and Chaos being released from his psyche or actually his mind being engulfed by the atrocities that he survived, and the mask serving as a temporary extinguisher whenever he wears is it.
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The Masks We Wear

by Shawn “Doc” Dickens

“It is a mask. I think everybody wears them. I just think certain people wear them better than others.”
– Carlos Pagan
Not all masks are big elaborate creations, some masks are as simple as a warm smile. A pearly white armor that hides beneath it the scars of pain suffered in silence. It is just such a smile that greets veterans as they enter the VA waiting room where Pagan works. The smile is indeed 100 percent genuine, the owner truly wanting to make a difference and provide assistance to fellow veterans looking for help. Yet, it is also completely artificial. The teeth that shine through upturned lips are not the original occupants. They are imposters filling in vacancies like scab workers after the union goes on strike and walks out in protest.
These false fangs bared for all to see, the product of back to back deployments into combat wearing on his soul. The trauma of friends and brothers-in-arms killed overseas manifests itself in nightmares and subconscious teeth grinding. So much pain, so much loss, gnawing at him from the inside out. Over the years his original teeth ground away, wearing down his original smile until there was nothing left. It was just as well, because he had no reason to smile anyway.
These memories of his friends would creep in and sit with him in the quiet dark of his bedroom. Faceless phantoms at the foot of his bed reminding him of the losses he suffered. Losses like his HUMVEE driver PFC William Newguard who he affectionately called “Noogies” for short. Noogies was sent on a vehicle patrol without him to show a new Sergeant the area of operations. Noogies’ convoy was struck by an IED and he was killed. The new sergeant lost his legs in the blast as he sat in the seat that Pagan would have occupied if he had not been ordered to stay behind. Was it Divine intervention or blind luck that he wasn’t sitting in his seat that day? More than 60 men in his unit taken before their time in the blinding flash of a roadside bomb, or enemy ambush.
The only thing worse than losing a fellow soldier to enemy actions in combat is having one lose the battle with his personal demons and take his own life. It is one thing to have a veteran get out of service and lose that battle back home, it is another thing entirely to have a senior soldier lose that battle while forward deployed.
When Pagan arrived on scene after a Bradly Fighting Vehicle was destroyed by a bomb it was his groups task to secure the scene and gather the dead. The sight of the burning shell of the Bradley resting on its side, surrounded by pieces of men is one not easily forgotten. Limbless torsos, charred and twisted limbs, all having to be gathered while wading through sewage water that filled the street from a ruptured pipe destroyed in the blast. It took hours. Hours in a living nightmare that would break down even the most seasoned of warriors. And it did. As the First Sergeant drove away with the remains of his men in his vehicle… he took his own life.
Every loss leaves its own mark. Each new mark added to the previous ones until they were unrecognizable as individuals.
Now, after multiple surgeries over the years, his new smile shows no sign of wear. His teeth, custom made, are impervious to being ground away. A permanent mask he can never take off. Now he never misses a chance to share his million dollar smile, because there are others that can’t smile.
Carlos Pagan wears his mask proudly. His mask hides his pain from the world, but unlike most his mask is actually the real him.