Growing up my brother and I would watch the Rambo movies over and over, so much so that a couple times a year he will call me to quote that scene at the end of First Blood where Rambo is with Troutman and he’s clearly having a PTSD breakdown as he is surrounded by the local law enforcement. “Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don’t turn it off…”
When I found out that there was a veteran in Greensboro doing great things who also happened to be named Rambo, I had to meet her. Jessica Rambo is a 10-year Marine Corps veteran and also the founder of the Painted Buffalo Traveling Studio. Her mission is to serve veterans through art and she is using her converted school bus as a mobile command center for service to veterans.
For many veterans post service there seems to be a disconnect with the culture and comradery they left and the society and solitude they returned home to. Whether you went to combat or supported the mission at home there seems to be a resonance in that life after the military seems somehow hollow. This often leads to issues with mental health and identity once a veteran is back in the “real world.”
For Jessica Rambo it seems that art was her saving grace. She says she left the Pentagon on a Friday and was enrolled in classes at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro as an art student on Monday. Jessica’s job in the Marine Corps was a combat camera(wo)man but she is adamant to mention that although she served during the GWOT era she did not deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. She says that when people hear of her job they automatically just assume she deployed to a combat zone camera in hand. Rambo says that most of her career was spent in the Pacific theatre in many Asian countries as well as Australia.
Rambo trained as a lithographer initially and after training when she reported to her unit in Hawaii she was promptly told that “we don’t do that here.” She says she learned really quick to just volunteer for everything and in doing so it opened up many doors in the Marine Corps for her. Even though she wasn’t initially trained as a camera operator she says she would often grab a camera and because of her background in art she could put together good images for the stories the Marine Corps wanted to tell in various countries. Her eagerness to take on new challenges even led her to the Pentagon at the end of her career to work as a graphic designer for the Marine Corps. Rambo says she met every president from Carter forward to Obama while in service and she was the proudest of being one of the designers of the Marine Corps Special Operations Command MARSOC Badge. As she talked about designing this insignia you could see her eyes gleam with proud accomplishment.
Jessica’s bus, the Painted Buffalo Traveling Studio, looked like one-part construction zone and one-part home as she was in the final phases of taking the leap from apartment life to full time bus living. When I asked her young son Liam if he was ready to move into the bus he shouted “no!” Jessica says her two kids are still warming up to the idea of full-time adventure living in the bus. Her lease in her apartment runs out on in just a few days and she has plans to drive the bus down to a “skoolie” bus community in Georgia to hopefully finalize the last remaining modifications to transform the bus from a marching band transport vehicle to a home and art studio for Rambo and her kids. She hopes in the future to host art workshops on the bus for veterans because Rambo says that art really helped her out of some dark times after she left the service on a medical discharge.
Sebastian Junger says in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging “When people are actively engaged in a cause their lives have more purpose... with a resulting improvement in mental health.” Rambo has championed the cause of Art and used her ingenuity and hard work to convert an old bluebird school bus into a home for her and her kids as well as an art studio for veterans in need of an outlet.
Veterans are some of the most resilient people you will ever meet and many seem to have a need to serve, whether in uniform or not. Jessica Rambo is one of these veterans and it’s exciting to watch her story unfold. Perhaps if each of us could dive into a passion area and find a like-minded tribe post service we could combat the veteran mental health crisis and be the next greatest generation. For more information about Jessica Rambo and her Painted Buffalo Traveling studio check out her website PaintedBuffaloStudio.com