“I see a clown,” the woman in the wheelchair said suddenly, breaking a long silence. In front of her, Lyndsey Anderson smiled, tilting her head slightly to listen. “What about it tells you it’s a clown?” she asked, nodding toward the painting the whole tour group was clustered around. It was a clashing frame of geometric shapes in swirls of red and blue on a square canvas, hinting at familiar shapes. The old woman in the wheelchair replied, pointing out the red circle of a nose and the shape of a jester’s hat. Next to her, the woman’s daughter—a carbon copy of the woman in the chair, their hair the same shade of gray—stood transfixed. “I took my daughter to the circus once,” the old woman told her daughter, not recognizing her.
“I remember that too, Mom,” her daughter replied, face streaming with tears. The woman in the chair didn’t seem to fully understand; she started humming a song, lost in her memory of the circus. Her daughter barely remembered it, she told Lyndsey during the tour. It must have been 60 years ago or more. Her mother’s dementia had obscured that memory, and nearly all others, including her daughter’s face half the time. In a quiet corner of the Rubin Museum of Art, the abstract painting of lions and the ring blew the fog of dementia away just for a moment.
Lyndsey loved that nook of the museum. There’s a reason that tour, one of dozens she’s led for people with memory loss, ended up in front of “The Circus.” The sounds of other museum guests floated up through the open spiral staircase, quiet enough not to break the group’s concentration in the secluded southwest corner. Lyndsey’s job as the Rubin’s manager for visitor experience and access programs was to help guests who wouldn’t benefit as much from traditional tours connect with art. To visitors with visual impairments she described the curves and edges of sculptures, suggesting the feelings that they evoked, and she brought tours for people with dementia to see vivid works that might jog memories they had forgotten. Sometimes, like the moment in front of the circus painting, her job was just to stand and listen, hands clasped easily behind her back—a soldier unable to kick the habit of coming to parade rest while standing still.
In Iraq, Lyndsey absorbed art and culture through murals pockmarked with shrapnel scars and tattered portraits discovered in wallets left behind by Iraqis who fled the American bombing campaign and ground invasion. She served at Camp Taji, a support unit base about 17 miles north of Baghdad that maintained a Captured Enemy Materials warehouse between 2003 and 2004, storing weapons, vehicles, statues, and “anything deemed historically relevant.”
She spent the bulk of her 13-month deployment supervising a group of local civilian contractors, working with an interpreter to direct the men—most of whom weren’t much older than she was—in various reconstruction projects around the city. When she arrived, Camp Taji and the surrounding area were a “trove of objects” left behind by Iraqis fleeing the war.
With the contractors, she spent days picking through the rubble, supervising construction projects and immersing herself in the liminal space of a culture oppressed by both war and the regime that preceded it. Portraits of Saddam Hussein were everywhere, and Lyndsey’s unit brought back a six-foot-square image that now hangs in the Iowa Gold Star Military Museum, where she did her first internship after returning home. But Lyndsey was fascinated with the smaller, human details left behind. During her two to three hours of downtime every day she started poking around the base and nearby buildings.
“I felt as if I were a modern-day Indiana Jones,” she said. During a single memorable day, she found an AK-47 bayonet, the giant Saddam portrait, several uniforms, a grenade training aid, and a cache of printed documents with Arabic script penciled into the margins. She was flipping through the documents when a photograph of a young girl fluttered out of the stack. For some reason she kept it, and she started collecting other small artifacts as well: small personal items of little material value that gave her a sense of connection to a culture so different from small-town Iowa. That lingering curiosity pulled at her for years. She started at the art history program at the University of Iowa, then headed to New York City for a master’s degree, and on to the Rubin and to a handful of other museums.
But eventually, Lyndsey said, it was time for a change.
A few months ago she stepped up slowly onto a temporary stage in a conference room in Brooklyn’s JP Morgan Chase building and plucked a wireless microphone off the podium. She paced back and forth in front of a projector screen, her gentle blond curls bobbing. In front of her, a sea of 200 college kids sat in long rows, like a company on the parade ground, clad in a uniform of weekend-work-event business suits worn with a flair of youth—purple ties, wingtip shoes, dazzling head wraps, and colorful hijabs. Lyndsey started off with a story.
It was so silly, she said. When she got on the crowded subway train headed toward downtown Manhattan’s Union Square, she took out her earbuds and put them in without connecting them to anything, a visible barrier to any attempts at conversation. The audience of college kids nods. They get it. Most of them are lifelong veterans of the New York City subway system. They know the tricks to getting some peace and personal space during a crowded commute.
Lyndsey’s train arrived at the next station. A man got on and sat next to her. He wanted to chat and started peppering her with questions: Where did she work? Where was she headed? She pretended not to hear, bobbing her head to music that wasn’t playing. Finally, she said, he tapped her. She feigned ignorance again: “Oh, were you talking to me, I’m sorry!” He pointed at her lap where the connecting end of her Apple earbuds lay, clearly not plugged into anything.
At this point, the conference room audience cracked up. Everyone had been there.
After a pause, Lyndsey explained what she was going for, breaking down her own story as an example of the skill she was trying to teach: how to get up in front of a bunch of strangers—be they an Iraqi work crew or a boardroom of investors—and make yourself seem like a person your audience wants to trust and like. After her speech, the students broke off into smaller groups with mentors from professions that interested them. The day had been organized by a group called America Needs You, for which Lyndsey is the manager of volunteers.
Throughout the day, she walked what felt like miles in laps around the sixth floor, curls bobbing, sticking her head into different rooms to give suggestions to mentors, to check that things were going smoothly, and to chat with a few of the students, all of whom are the first in their families to go to college. As she roamed the halls, people would snag her for a moment or two to ask for help.
Lyndsey’s unit, the 185 Corps Support Battalion of the Iowa National Guard, were some of the very first National Guard troops to return home from Iraq. It was early 2005, when small towns still pulled out all the stops for military homecomings with parades and ceremonies. The unit landed at the Des Moines airport, 35 miles from their home base at Camp Dodge where all of their families were waiting. Lyndsey piled onto a bus—a jumble of rumpled fatigues weighed down by dusty gear bags—which glided out of the parking lot and onto a smaller access road near the main highway. As they merged onto the highway, a police cruiser slid in front of them and then took off. The bus picked up speed too, following the cruiser on an empty highway.
The soldiers sat with their faces pressed to the windows and watched the flashing red and blue lights of more cruisers that blocked traffic from entering the highway on every side road the bus passed, giving them a clean shot straight back to Camp Dodge. At one point, the bus drove under an overpass, where a group of families, tipped off about the unit’s route, were standing above the highway with a giant banner, waving furiously. Lyndsey was never much for the pomp and circumstance of military celebrations, but after 13 months in the desert the keening bagpipes and cheering families got to her, and she strode off the bus with her chest puffed out as far as it would go.
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And there they were, her mom and dad and two brothers, standing together and crying like her. They wore gleaming bands on their wrists. At some point during her deployment, her brothers, Nate and Ian, had made stainless steel bracelets with her name engraved on them. Stepping off the bus, Lyndsey was jarred by the sight. The bracelets are traditionally worn by military members to remember fellow soldiers killed in combat or who have died back home for other reasons, including suicide. For Nate and Ian, she said, the bracelets were a constant reminder of where their sister was and what she was doing. They were a physical token her family wore when she was away and after she came home.
Ian is a more solitary member of the family, Lyndsey said. He’s the kind of guy who does his own thing and isn’t demonstrative with his emotions. But, she said, over the years, even if they hadn’t talked for a few weeks or months, the stainless steel band has remained on his wrist. In every photo of him she’s seen on social media, he’s wearing it. For Nate, the youngest of the family, the bracelet wasn’t enough. When he was in high school, younger even than Lyndsey was when she joined, he followed her into the Iowa National Guard. By the time Nate went to boot camp, Lyndsey was in the big city—New York. She made it back to Iowa for his graduation from basic training, at the same facility where she had trained over a decade before.
For about an hour, Nate stood at attention with his brothers and sisters in arms, waiting for the moment to break ranks and go greet his family. In the audience, their mother nudged Lyndsey and, in a whisper, asked if she could go hug him. A decade after she joined the service, Lyndsey watched with her family as Nate followed in her path.
“The thing that choked me up the most was thinking this will provide for him so many opportunities to be whoever he chooses,” Lyndsey said. “I know for a fact that I would still be in Iowa if I hadn’t got out through the military.”
After a long application process and months of research and work, she recently signed a lease on a one-bedroom apartment in a co-op building in New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood. The military, she said, isn’t the only way to find the opportunities she has had. Two weekends every month at the America Needs You mentoring workshops, Lyndsey gets to recapture the feeling from Nate’s graduation as she watches the hardworking and ambitious students applying themselves, striving to expand their opportunities in life.
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The first-generation college students come from families that have been in the United States for generations and from families that have immigrated just a few years ago—from the likes of Pakistan, Senegal, Thailand, Iraq. Lyndsey’s job is to make sure they too can experience everything the States has to offer, specifically a higher education in business, law, medicine, or art. So they can stay in their hometowns and care for their families and communities, or so they can move across the country following a different dream, like she did. Lyndsey’s service took her to Iraq, and then propelled her into a life she couldn’t have dreamed of before the National Guard.
“Being able to pay that forward in any way is my mission; that’s the thing that brings me joy.”
The Veterans Adding Value series is a multimedia project that challenges the “broken” stereotype often associated with veterans by focusing storytelling on transitions from military service into academia, social impact work, and entrepreneurship.
This series aims to bridge the military-civilian divide through in-depth, vivid reporting and highlights the resilience, compassion, and selflessness forged through military service.