GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — If you visit Veterans Memorial Park on Fulton Street in Grand Rapids during ArtPrize, you’ll find pieces of artwork honoring those who have served in the military.
Tiffany Horan, who joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 2003, said she has been wanting to enter ArtPrize for years with a vision of bringing awareness to disparities within the military.
“It was something that I already had in mind that I wanted to do someday. I just didn’t know when would be the time that I would want to do it,” Horan said.
Wanting to make a difference, Horan enlisted at the age of 19. She said she knew if she could get through that, she could do anything.
“When I joined, it was a better point of after 9/11; I wanted to support our country and also, it was a test of my character, of my well-being,” she said.
Horan’s ArtPrize entry, “Darkness to light… Strength to fight another day” highlights the journey of her service. It’s being hosted at [Has Heart] at Veterans Memorial Park.
“When I joined, I experienced a lot of different things like brotherhood, sisterhood — there’s Marines that were wonderful, they are supportive,” Horan said.
Other Marine Corp members were not as supportive, Horan said. She faced unexpected enemies: betrayal, degrading comments, harassment, unwanted touching and abuse.
Horan said there weren’t many women joining the the Marine Corps when she enlisted, calling the lack of gender diversity “very apparent.” It was also a time when women did not serve in combat roles.
“At the time when the war first started in Iraq in 2003, there was only four of us deployed together. I believe the estimated number was about 200 men we were with,” Horan said.
Women were often were referred to as “WM’s,” Horan recalled.
“They had a label for us,” she said. “It didn’t bother me at the time because I was like, these guys are just talking crap… whatever.”
Another challenge she came across was trust. There were certain people she felt she could trust. But toward others, mostly those who outranked her, she was more hesitant.
“You don’t know who especially you can talk to, who you can trust, who’s going to have your back and who’s going to support you,” she said. “It was a challenge for sure to say the least.”
There were also moments when Horan said she felt betrayed and at times, she said she was in denial that it was even happening. She said she stood her ground, even when others turned their back on her during those situations.
“Some of the things that happened were so stupid — it was like, why would you even lie about that,” she said.
Horan recalled of a time during training when she and others waited for a woman who was lagging behind, encouraging her to finish. The group of women was late and ultimately punished with additional intense training that she compared to hazing.
During a different day of training, the group did not wait for the woman who was falling behind and hoped the outcome would be different.
“Then we would let her do her thing and then we were punished again. So it was like you couldn’t win. They constantly made an example of us,” Horan said.
There were instances during women shower times when Horan said some of the enlisted men with ranks above hers would come in to shave and would watch them through the mirror.
“And now, I have to take direction from you, and you have to be my commanding officer,” she said. “So at that time, at the age of 19 or 20, I was kind of naïve to the fact of thinking, this is what we have to go through, this is just it, this is what you deal with. That in itself made me be able to not trust a lot of people,” she said.
Though some may feel women shouldn’t be in combat, Horan said the main point of discussion should be more about respect.
“When you’re in a war in a different country, everyone has loaded rounds — that in itself is kind of traumatizing to think: Why do I have to go through this while I’m doing this for our country?” she said.
DARKNESS TO LIGHT
Horan now has two daughters and says she does not want them to be put in those types of situations.
“I want them to be able to feel comfortable and be accepted,” Horan said of her daughters.
With fellow Marines who she could trust by her side, Horan said she was able to get through the tough times.
“Even though it felt like I was betrayed by some, there were other men and women that I served with that I could trust that had my back,” she said.
Horan’s ArtPrize piece touches on two separate ideas: darkness and light.
“When I came home from Iraq the first time, I was changed but I didn’t feel like I was changed. A lot of my friends and family noticed but I didn’t,” Horan said. “I harvested a lot of anger and frustration over that and I felt like it was really dark like I was in a dark time in my life.”
She said she experienced depression, anxiety and panic attacks in the middle of the night. She said she almost lost hope after a fellow Marine who was often a source of motivation died by suicide.
“I didn’t want to accept the fact that maybe I was a little bit more damaged and injured.” she said. “I was trying to figure out if I was coming or going.”
Feeling blank and empty, Horan said there was a time where she turned to pills and alcohol. She said she didn’t know who to talk to and didn’t want to seek guidance, fearing that she would appear weak to other Marines.
“And that was a very dark part of my life,” she said.
But she was motivated to see light again.
The steps featured in “Darkness to light… Strength to fight another day” represent the leap of faith she took to be happy in her skin.
“It’s like taking that path on God’s path to find myself again,” she said.
She was able to talk about her experience with others, saying that it was more damaging to keep her feelings inside.
Pamela Alderman, a local artist and veteran ally, helped guide Horan through the ArtPrize process. Alderman has participated in ArtPrize for about a decade. Horan’s story is featured on Alderman’s 2021 entry Yellow Ribbon, which is also located at [Has Heart] at Veterans Memorial Park.
Using mostly tissue paper and Mod Podge, Horan created her art piece. A wooden cross and dog tags are also featured on the piece, along with words often connected to veterans.
Horan wants others in the military or those who have previously served to know it’s OK to talk about what they went through because they are all fighting the same battle.
“To know that they’re not alone. There’s a lot of (people) who feel the same way,” Horan said. “A big thing with my piece is that it’s OK to talk about mental health, especially if you go through a war situation. Every single person may have a hidden wound or a war injury that they’re not familiar with, but they don’t think it’s a thing.”