Architect and artist Neil Bernstein brought a different version of the Lincoln Memorial to town recently. It’s called the New Lincoln Veterans Memorial and it’s a bicentennial vintage 1976 Lincoln Town Car, carrying a flag-draped coffin on its roof, as well as signatures of veterans of America’s wars.
“We’ve got signatures all the way up to the Pentagon,” Bernstein tells Jewish News from his tour stop in Los Angeles.
Bernstein is driving the car from one VA hospital city to another; he launched the project down in Tucson on Jan. 15 and parked outside the Carl T. Hayden VA Medical Center here in Phoenix on Jan. 16.
Bernstein calls this a rolling document and at each stop he’s gathering veterans’ signatures and short films “as we progress toward Washington to raise consciousness.” He came to Phoenix for “obvious reasons,” referring to the scandal that shook the Department of Veterans Affairs last year after a whistleblower alleged that veterans had died while awaiting health care from the Phoenix VA and that records had been falsified to hide this track record.
This led to resignations and firings throughout the Veterans Healthcare Administration, federal investigations including an FBI probe, and the resignation of then-Veteran Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. The affair led to new federal law to help improve veterans’ access to health care.
“We’re not pointing any fingers,” Bernstein says. “We’re just trying to raise the issue on what’s happening to a lot of the veterans – you know, all the way back to World War II – myself included, which is our VA system is so overtaxed and overstressed for lack of funding that our doctors are all resigning and quitting and the few people who do stay are working, you know, three times, four times as hard as they normally would.”
Bernstein, who served in the Army in Germany during the Cold War, says he almost died from the half-measures that overtaxed doctors might take.
“What happened to me was I started having problems [with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD] and I nearly died because they kept pumping up my medication,” he says. “It was all that they could do. They said, ‘Well, just take more of this.’ I nearly died as a result.”
This incident, which took place in 2012-13, prompted Bernstein, who is retired, to say, “OK. I’ve got to do something about this.” So he put together the car and casket and gathered signatures from veterans he knew and set out to gather more on his trek.
“What’s going to happen as we progress, because the car’s almost already completely covered, is we’re going to swap out the fenders and the hood and doors ... they’ll get a coating with epoxy resin and then they go to museums, they’ll be put in, you know, exhibitions in different museums all over the place, all over the world.”
He has done other outside-the-box art projects memorializing the Holocaust and 9/11 first responders, among others. So framing his effort as an art project was a natural fit for him.
“Art touches people in ways that you can’t really touch them otherwise because it’s held in a higher level of esteem and, because it’s seen by curators and intelligentsia, it’s generally viewed as something that carries across time, long after the yelling and screaming and arguing and fighting’s over – including wars. You know, they’re still pulling [Max] Beckmanns and Marc Chagalls from the hands of the Nazis and the Russians.”
The plan is to end up in Washington, D.C., sometime around Memorial Day, and the goal is to get the VA health system properly funded, he says.
“We’re already in dialogue with a congressman in Pennsylvania, that’s Matt Cartwright, he’s a big advocate of ours, and a couple of other people whose names I can’t mention yet, but we’re in dialogue with them. They are listening to us,” he says.
For more information, visit tinyurl.com/JNlincoln.
Need to Know is an occasional column that looks behind the headlines. Contact the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org..