Robert grew up in the small town of Marion, Virginia, not far from the Great Smoky Mountains that unfurl along Tennessee’s eastern border. There wasn’t a lot to occupy a kid so he sat at home, staring at the TV playing video games. His dad also taught him to repair bikes in the family shop.

But Robert wanted to see the world outside Marion (current population 5,936), so he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Boot camp took him to Fort Gordon, in Augusta, Georgia, then the Army deployed him to Southeastern Iraq. When he took a vow for this country, he says, it meant he’d do whatever it took. Even combat. But he hated the experience in the Middle East.

“It was hot and dry. And there was killing people — and getting away with it and not having to go to prison,” he says.

Robert worked as a firefighter. His stint lasted 18 months. On his return, he was stationed in Texas, and when his service ended, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. History repeated itself and, just like in the Army, he was deployed to Iraq. This time he drove trucks. He stayed 28 months. When his service ended in 2004, he moved to Seattle and got a job at a security firm in Tacoma. 

But serving two Middle East tours exacted a price. “It does a toll on you,” Robert says. “After the second tour, they put me in the state hospital because of my depression.” Robert had a girlfriend. He called her every day, which helped him stay sane. He was released after a month and three days.

“I felt good to be out, my meds were working great,” he says. So great, Robert went and applied for a job as a police officer in Tacoma. Everything went well in the interview, until he mentioned his depression. He didn’t get the job. He continued at the security firm, while he and his girlfriend raised two boys.

Later, he took his girlfriend and the boys, to visit his father in Marion. On Christmas Day, Robert got a call from a neighbor, who told him, “Your house went up in flames.” Faulty wiring, he said. “We lost everything.”


Katrina Martin is an artist and former student at Northwest College of Art & Design. More of her work can be seen at