It was artwork once deemed too real to display. But the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Medical Center on Wednesday backed down and is allowing Iraq war vet Bill DeRoche to display a sculpture he created for the VA's ongoing art show.

The VA originally banned the sculpture because it featured inert shells in the artwork that the VA claimed violated federal weapons prohibitions. It also claimed DeRoche's work appeared to be so real that it could trigger trauma for veterans viewing it.

But after a lawyer representing DeRoche suggested in a letter that the VA was violating DeRoche's First Amendment rights, the agency said it would allow the sculpture to be displayed after all as part of its Creative Arts competition at the medical center.

Before the artwork could be shown, however, the VA told DeRoche he had to get an expert to certify that it is safe. He also had provide the VA with documentation of the inspection. When he met both conditions, the VA said it would then display the piece behind a partition with a sign stating what it is so individuals can decide about viewing it.

The art show started Wednesday and runs through Friday.

DeRoche, who learned of the VA's reversal late Wednesday from a reporter, had Bloomington police certify his work was safe Thursday morning, an officer writing what DeRoche joked was a "doctor's note" and initialing each of the shells. VA officials met DeRoche at the door and the art work was installed at the VA Thursday afternoon. But because judging had already been completed, it won't be part of the actual art show competition.

"This could have all been handled so differently, but it took on a life of its own," he said. "Maybe it's an ego thing, but 90 percent of these people would never admit they are wrong."

After the story of the VA banning DeRoche's sculpture was published in the Star Tribune last month, lawyer and Army veteran Larry Frost contacted DeRoche and offered his support. In a letter dated Monday to the VA, Frost, who spent 27 years in the military, said banning the artwork violated DeRoche's free speech rights and that the inert casings could not be considered weapons.

"Yes, shell casings (in this case) are legally recognized as 'speech,' " Frost wrote in his letter. "The VA is forbidden by Supreme Court decisions of very, very long standing from censoring speech on the basis of content. You and your agency cannot reasonably claim they were unaware of these rights. You have specifically censored Mr. DeRoche's speech because of its content."

Frost's letter added: "I am enraged that the VA would dare to decide that we, adult combat veterans, are incapable of deciding for ourselves whether to view Mr. DeRoche's art — or not to do so. Your nanny mentality smacks of the kind of paternalism no veteran is likely to stomach."

As late as Tuesday, as the opening of the art show approached, the VA's position banning the artwork was unchanged. In a letter to Frost, a VA attorney said the organization had consulted with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and still believed the artillery casings to be an explosive device.

Frost heralded the reversal on Wednesday.

"Once you make a decision, you kind of get committed to it. I'm very glad the VA reconsidered, and I think it's a reasonable decision under the circumstances," he said.

DeRoche, a Marine veteran, said he had been encouraged for years to enter the art competition. Injured in a 2004 bomb blast that struck his convoy in Iraq, it would be a way, he was told, to publicly address the trauma that continues to affect him.

But the VA balked when it got a look at photos of the sculpture DeRoche planned to enter. The piece includes four shells connected by wires, a representation of the improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used in the kind of blast that wounded him. The shells in the artwork were a risk to public safety and a threat to a vulnerable population, the VA said.

Although the shells are inert, the VA wanted them removed. DeRoche refused, saying it would ruin the work's message.

The sculpture features the four casings wired together inside a wooden crate, with two fake skulls, a deck of cards, DeRoche's dog tags, and various symbolic medals and coins. A flickering light bulb projects up from the box. It is meant to show the light that helped DeRoche through his darkness, he said.

The purpose of the competition, which generates 100 to 150 submissions a year, is "to recognize veterans for their creative accomplishments and to educate and demonstrate to our community the therapeutic benefits of the arts," according to a pamphlet the VA distributed about the event.

The VA said the initial decision on DeRoche's work marked only the second time in 30 years of the competition that an entry had been rejected.

Mark Brunswick • 612-673-4434