Art gave Navajo combat vet another chance after tornado injuries ended his military career

By ROBERT NOTT | The Santa Fe New Mexican | Published: December 13, 2019

SANTA FE, N.M. (Tribune News Service) — War didn’t kill or physically scar Jeff DeMent. He survived countless combat missions in Iraq during his 14-month tour there with the U.S. Army.

His combat experience did leave indelible emotional and psychological marks on him, but it was the tornado that hit the St. Louis area on Good Friday in 2011 that knocked more than the wind out of him.

Making Native art, the Navajo silversmith said, has opened a path to healing.

DeMent, 42, who lives in Santa Fe, was serving as a front-gate guard the evening the tornado swept over the Missouri Air National Guard Station at St. Louis Lambert International Airport. When the tornado arrived, he made a dash for an underground shelter.

The twister knocked him down, the ice-cold rain battered him and the wind bashed him against the walls near the opening of the tunnel — which turned out to be locked. His injuries were severe enough to end his 16-year military career with a medical discharge in summer 2014.

Restless, he drifted for some time, haunted by thoughts of taking his own life.

Now, just days before he showcases his work in the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts’ annual Winter Market at La Fonda on the Plaza, he believes the tornado set him spinning into a new career of creation and gave him a renewed shot at life.

“If that [tornado] hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be here,” he said while holding one of the many silver-and-turquoise works he made in his home-based studio, nestled at the end of a mountain trail high above the city.

His worktable is laden with pendants, bracelets, earrings, bolo ties and other jewelry he has made. Tools from the past, including a vise, sit side by side with more modern tools, like a 3D printer. He can peer out a picture window in the workspace and see Mount Taylor in the distance. The Navajo people consider it Turquoise Mountain — which DeMent finds appropriate, given the type of jewelry he makes.

It seems right, he said, that he somehow ended up “bringing beauty back into the world” after all the death and destruction he saw during his military years — and after a particularly desperate moment that found him lying on his bathroom floor with a gun by his side.

After less than four years of making jewelry, he has shown his work in galleries and art shows, in venues from Santa Fe to Paris. Silversmithing, he said, “has provided an outlet to help me process my thoughts concerning traumatic experiences from the past, especially those from combat.”

He’s come a long way from home.

DeMent was born in the Ozarks of southern Missouri. His dad worked in the timber trade, and his mother, now deceased, taught special education.

He had no formal introduction to art, he said, but he recalls visiting a grandmother in New Mexico and stopping at makeshift roadside jewelry shops set up in the back of pickups. He liked the look and feel of the Native jewelry, but the price was out of his family’s reach.

“It looked like magic to me,” DeMent said.

He liked to draw when he was a kid, but he grew up with only one aim in life: to join the military. It was “the thing to do, something to do with honor and freedom and patriotism,” he said.

His two brothers still serve in the Army.

DeMent received Special Forces training and became a combat engineer, serving on the front lines when called. He got used to the camaraderie and teamwork, knowing his buddies had his back.

Returning to the U.S. following his tour in Iraq, he planned to serve until the 20-year mark and then perhaps become a security adviser.

The tornado changed all that, making his body no longer fit to serve.

“My career was over; they said I couldn’t function,” he recalled. “All of a sudden, I got nothing.”

His gut told him to head west, first to Colorado and then to Santa Fe.

“It found me,” he said of the City Different.

In what he sees as a sign of fate, he stumbled across an isolated mountain home where he could work in peace. The landlord rented it to him immediately, saying he felt DeMent was a good fit for the place.

DeMent creates his jewelry using a process known as tufa casting, in which he carves designs into pieces of hand-cut tuff — compressed volcanic ash he gathers from the desert — and then pours molten silver into the design. He then inlays the turquoise.

One of his favorite designs is in the form of a lightning arrow, an idea “that just kinda happened,” he said. It represents power, focus, a warrior mentality, he said.

He still considers himself a warrior — and more often, he uses his artwork to embrace that idea. “My calling is to be a protector, to help people who can’t defend themselves,” DeMent said.

Jessi Ortega, a sales associate at Malouf on the Plaza, which sells DeMent’s work, said that while the artist works in traditional methods, his art comes out “with a modern twist, which I think is very important to people.

“A lot of times when people buy jewelry, they want a story to take home with them,” Ortega said, “and the story behind him — his heritage as a Native American and a warrior finding peace and beauty with his work — is a beautiful one.”

DeMent is still working his way through that story, unsure of how the next chapter will read. For now, he said, “Each day is a bonus. I made that choice: I choose to be here every single day.

“I’m gonna keep living that way, doing the best I can and making the most of each moment.”

©2019 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)
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