Joseph Fornelli was drafted into the U.S. Army in September 1965 and served in a helicopter unit in Vietnam. Part of his job included delivering food, water and medicine to areas where soldiers needed supplies. But most of the time, he and his crew found themselves desperately trying to bring about a dozen men at a time to safe quarters. With a 20-pound M60 machine gun in his lap, Fornelli would patiently watch for signs of a sniper hiding in the jungle.
“My job was to return fire immediately when fired upon,” he said. “There was very little I could do about it, but I could return fire. Weapons produced smoke and I could return fire on them right away. I was really all eyes and trigger fingers for a long time. When I was doing this, all I saw was all that green and all those tall trees. It kind of took over. I was mesmerized by it.”
These and other memories stayed with Fornelli for a long time after he left the war. They haunted him in his sleep and occupied his thoughts while he was awake. As a result, Fornelli said he bounced from job to job because of post-traumatic stress disorder, but it took many years before he fully recognized all the symptoms associated with PTSD and how the disorder impacted nearly every aspect of his life.
“Over the years, I’ve walked out of jobs, too,” Fornelli said, adding that he remembers feeling that people at his job were lying to his face. Although it took him nearly four decades to accept, understand and learn how to cope with PTSD, he first saw the signs when he was 23 years old. Fornelli recalled the day he was pulled over by a police officer.
“He saw something wrong with my car,” Fornelli said. “He says, ‘You’re going 10 miles an hour.’ I didn’t know I was driving so slow because I was so intent on watching the forest preserves and the trees for flashes and smoke, so I could fire back. That should have told me something.”
Although the police officer let Fornelli off with only a stern warning, looking back years later, he considers it one of his earliest moments that let him know something was wrong.
Today, he is still troubled by the memories from more than four decades ago. To help cope, Fornelli spends much of his time surrounded by the part of his life that gives him the most comfort – his work. Fornelli is a founder, and serves as a curator, for the National Veterans Art Museum. Located in Chicago, the museum houses about 2,500 pieces of art by veterans from World War II to the current conflicts in the Middle East.
“People are touched deeply. It drags up all those memories. But it’s better to get the stuff on the outside. I guess if you do enough of it, it kind of quiets the sadness,” he said. “I’m glad I have the gift to produce art, and I continue to use it to this day. I’m just one of the lucky ones. I wish I could pass it on.”
His artwork has allowed him to express some of the pain caused by the memories, while giving him the freedom to accept his past, he said. Fornelli still sees himself as a sufferer of PTSD, but being an artist makes coping a little easier.
“There were a couple of episodes of me holding back tears to the point where you just start shaking. And I think it’s got a lot to do with the shock of being alive,” he said. “You don’t realize it; it’s kind of a shock.”