War Stories: Mike Cousino, "Grunt" Dioramist

Mike Cousino at American base in Khe Sahn, 1968.

Michael Cousino, U.S. Marine Combat "Grunt"

It's hard for [veterans] to tell the story, but they want the public to know what happened in Vietnam. And that's basically what I'm doing, telling the public that, 'Hey! War sucks!' There is no good in war. Both sides lose. My scenes must be real to the Vietnam vet when he or she looks at it. And it is. The only thing is, it don't have the sounds, the heat, the smells of the vegetation, whatever. But whatever you see in plastic, dirt, and paint is a story that happened to a Vietnam vet.

When he was 17, Michael Cousino left Gouverneur for the United States Marine Corps. By 1968 he was stationed near the DMZ in Vietnam where a battle injury ended his 13-month tour of duty as a "grunt" or ground soldier and he returned to the United States for rehabilitation and discharge. For the next several years he struggled with his injuries—both physical and emotional—and, shortly after returning to Gouverneur, he joined a veterans' group for counseling.

When he had difficulty talking about his experiences in Vietnam, a friend suggested that he use his hands to make dioramas of specific incidents. What developed was a flurry of activity, as he modified plastic kits of models of World War II era men and women and machines and fashioned scraps of plastic, wood, and metal from around his house. Since those days, he has made nearly 300 of these "scenes," many from painful stories shared in confidence with him by new buddies and fellow veterans. The artwork has become significant therapy for Mike and his friends, as well as a vital way for him to teach younger generations about the experiences of the ordinary soldier.

The great details of his dioramas reveal his natural storytelling talents, relying on memory to reveal such diverse topics as military situations like the use of Agent Orange and a constantly recurring nightmare of being surrounded by the enemy, encounters with Vietnamese locals (friendly and unfriendly), and some hopeful examples of healing in the years since that conflict, such as group counseling and visits to the Vietnam Memorial wall in our nation's capitol.

Mike acknowledges that every one of his pieces, large or small, is a story, sometimes his own, sometimes shared by a fellow veteran, sometimes a generic experience of the period. Telling these stories—a blend of horror, humor, boredom, fear, and fun—seems to have helped his own progress from confusion and despair and, according to many who have seen them, helped them and their families, too.

In the years since his return, Mike Cousino has completed a college degree, worked as a job counselor for the New York State Department of Labor, and raised—with his wife Patti—three children. He and his work have been featured in a number of museum exhibitions, including one-man shows in Albany, Buffalo, Binghamton, and Canton, and in newspaper and magazine articles. He is the subject of the book Vietnam Remembered: The Fol k Art of Combat Veteran Michael D. Cousino, Sr., by TAUNY director Varick Chittenden, published in 1995 by University Press of Mississippi.

War Stories: Mike Cousino, "Grunt" Dioramist