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Restoration: One Veteran's Search for Forgiveness

courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

I’m usually a positive kind of person. I’ve gotten through some pretty rough times with the simple mantra, “It’ll be OK.  It’ll all be OK”. But these days even the most optimistic of us are struggling. I wish I could believe in magic or miracles; a cure for Covid-19, an end to social injustice and hate, salvation for our planet. Heck, I wish I could believe in Santa Claus. The closest I can come up with is Steve Maxner.


Steve looks just like Santa Claus, but he’s much more soft-spoken. His wife Joyce draws a portrait of him every December for their Christmas card. Last year’s card pictured him in a hammock, his English setter, the size of a reindeer, lying in the foreground. For as big as he is, Steve always looks as if he could break. A porcelain Santa who with the wrong word, might shatter into a million pieces.

During my years of caring for him at the VA, we talked about a lot of things: his wife and five kids, the Vineyard, his music. But Steve never talked about his time in combat. He did tell me his story of coming home. When he flew back from Vietnam, he had to wear his uniform. As soon as he got off the plane, he went into the Men’s room and changed into jeans and a T-shirt. He stuffed his uniform into a trashcan. Along with it, he tried to pack away his memories of war, but they continued to haunt him.

Last winter, I caught a peek into Steve’s memories when I visited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to see his first art exhibit. Steve doesn’t consider himself an artist. I asked Steve how he came to create his work. In his usual humble fashion, he said, “I have no idea. It just came to me when I was walking.”

Years ago, I had encouraged Steve to get into a daily walking routine. It took a while, but once he got started, he felt better physically and emotionally, and he’s continued his walks along the beach with his dog, Ollie. A couple of years ago, he started to notice things on the shore. A pretty shell, a multicolored stone, a piece of driftwood. They spoke to him and somehow triggered memories of Vietnam. He felt compelled to pick up the pieces and take them home. 

Over time, he amassed buckets of what he called “gifts washed in by the tide.” One day he started to assemble them on panels, each one telling a part of his story. Together with his simple descriptions, they now cover the walls of a light-filled gallery.

 The artist’s statement in the center of the room describes his introduction to the horrors of war. On arriving at his first duty station, he confronted the dismembered body of an elderly civilian. At that moment Steve “went numb” and stayed that way for over fifty years. Since then, he’s been on what he calls a “reconnaissance mission” to locate his feelings and his memories. 

A panel of hundreds of glittering gold shells immortalizes the more than 58,000 American soldiers killed in Vietnam. Myriads of tiny gray crustaceans pay homage to the tens of thousands of children who were lost. With countless shards of coral and broken shells representing the millions of Vietnamese killed in the war, Steve reminds us: “The purpose of war is to kill people”. 

The pieces are stark and heartbreaking. They’re filled with pain and beauty. They tell the story of a young man who lived through the hell of a war he couldn’t justify, and his never-ending search for forgiveness. They tell of the friends he lost, the daughter who was born while he was deployed, and the Vietnamese family he brought to America. Panels plead, “Let Us Have Peace,” a lamp of hope shines brightly through its shade of ropes and fishnets.

Steve doesn’t know why or how he’s created his work, but he knows that since he’s begun, “a tremendous burden” has been lifted from his shoulders. He credits the waters that surround Martha’s Vineyard with sending him the gifts that are healing him. “It’s all a mystery,” he told me. In his gentle way, he shies away from praise and doesn’t even feel the work belongs to him.

Shortly after I visited Steve’s exhibit, the pandemic forced the museum to close its doors. Steve’s work was placed in storage, but he continued to collect treasures. The museum has now reopened, with a display of even more of Steve’s work in its main gallery. When he first put his work on exhibit last winter, Steve hoped he might help fellow veterans with their struggles.

Since then, all of us have lived through months of unforeseeable anguish and despair. At a time when we most need connection, we’re forced to maintain distance from our loved ones, limit our contact with others, and cover our faces. Steve’s exhibit offers us a place where we can get up close to one man’s story of restoration.