22.

In combat armor protects, armor saves lives. When soldiers return from the war zone the armor is removed. But the weight is not lifted. The heaviness of the battlefield is still carried by the veteran. Unseen armor contains and confines their untold stories.

As a tribute to veterans, and to honor their strength and courage on Veterans Day, the Lionhearted project was created. Through art, film, and the written word, Lionhearted gives a voice to 22 veterans and their experiences. What they have seen. What they have lost. How they are healing.

To be Lionhearted is to be brave. Courageous, and determined. The war zone is far away now. Still, these 22 veterans need to summon all the bravery they can muster. They are telling their stories. “It takes a lot of courage to get in front of that camera and meet someone for five minutes and tell the most personal incident they’ve ever faced in their life,” says Shane Ruiz, Director of Digital Media, The Safariland Group.

The stories are difficult for Ruiz to listen to. He is a 10th Mountain Combat Veteran, and the circumstances of some of the situations are his story, too. “I did two tours in Afghanistan. Got pretty messed up so I came back and it was a long road to recovery. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my wife, family and friends. I came home with a Purple Heart and a bunch of issues that I didn’t know how to cope with. The loss of not being in combat anymore made me realize it was an addiction. The situations we faced like Timothy O’Donnell’s story and Frank Morales’ story. We got hit every day so to come home and have that all taken away put me in a weird place for a long time.” The veterans he interviews know Ruiz’s history, his story. It helps them to be more comfortable.

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Every day in the United States, an average of 22 veterans die by suicide. The statistic is staggering. Heartbreaking. Over a period of 15 months, the 22 veterans are filmed for the Lionhearted project, and they speak about their experiences of sacrifice, loss, and the healing process.

Artist Shawn Ganther, an Air Force veteran, was commissioned to create a painting representing each veteran and their story on 22 Safariland hard armor plates. A 23rd plate depicts the folded US flag, representing the fallen soldier. The 24th plate is a partial quote from Douglas MacArthur that reads, “It is the soldier who must suffer and bear the deepest wounds and scars of war.”

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“With your shield or on it!” is a battle cry made famous millennia ago by Spartan warriors. “It’s a phrase that means there’s no giving up,” says Ruiz. “You’re going all in. Well, outside of combat we need to come home to our selves. There comes a time where we need to hang that shield up.”

It’s when warriors return, they feel the weight of war. “When you’re deployed you never really have a time to digest,” says Ruiz. “Now this is a time to. A lot of these veterans are digesting for the first time, but by sharing their experiences it allows others veterans to know that it’s okay to talk about these things.”

22 armor plates are being lifted and arranged to form an American flag in the National Veterans Art Museum. Here the images and stories of 22 veterans will be displayed in perpetuity, in honor of all veterans and their sacrifice. At the Lionhearted website visitors can experience the 22 films, artwork, stories, and find sources for mental health support.

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