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Meet the Disabled Iraq War Vet Who Rescued Coit Tower's Murals

Inside Hien Manh Tran's journey from SF to Iraq and back. 

Hien Manh Tran

The Marx-steeped WPA artists who installed the murals in Coit Tower 80 years ago might approve of Park and Rec's pick of Anvil Buliders Inc. to restore the structure, a five-month project that finished today. After all, it's minority-owned, locally-based small business that makes a point of employing labor from disabled and union workers. And there's a bonus: Anvil staffs itself with Armed Forces veterans.

Anvil CEO Hien Manh Tran is a San Francisco native and San Jose State alumnus. As a sergeant in the Army he oversaw supply routes south of Kirkuk, a volatile and remote region in northern Iraq, one that Stars & Stripes called a "killing zone" in 2008. While on patrol on Mother's Day that year, Tran was blown up by an IED. He lost his right eye, and today walks only thanks to a rod in his leg. After recovering at Walter Reed, Tran retired from service, went into contracting, and founded Anvil Builders Inc. with the aim of employing as many other vets (particularly injured ones) as possible.

The company grew from three people in a single office in 2010 to 50 today—20% of whom are veterans. "Soldiers aren't always good at talking up their experience," Tran says. "When I tell people I'm an infantryman, they assume I'm just a grunt and a frontline fighter, but actually all of my construction experience I got from infantry work, because we had to go and build bases out in the middle of nowhere." Anvil works through Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco-based non-profit "matchmaker" service that pairs veterans with companies looking to hire.

The federal government commissioned the Coit murals under the New Deal in 1933. At the time they were considered incendiary thanks to the Socialist overtones in scenes of workers toiling in oil fields and fruit groves—and for daring to paint white and minority workers side by side. Tran says he read the works of Marxist Mexican artist Diego Rivera while on the project. (Contrary to popular rumor, Rivera didn't work on the murals, but many of the contributing artists had studied with him, and sly references to Rivera appear throughout.)

After decades of tourists brushing up against them (the rails and signs asking people to keep their distance didn't appear until the '90s), the walls needed a thorough cleaning and refinishing. Lead-based paint had to be removed and replaced. They also waterproofed the place and put in new lighting. Details once thought lost to time, like the faces of the workers in the backgrounds, have reemerged.  As Anvil COO Alan Guy puts it, "it's $2 million worth of work on materials that can never be replaced, so the pressure was on."

Most people don't pay much mind to the murals' subversive iconography (one of the subjects is seen reaching for a copy of Das Kapital), but Tran likes it. "I'm no art historian, but art is about perspective. It's controversial to some, but not to others," he says. "It's revolutionary in its own way." 

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