Two Photos For America

IMG_0475IMG_0450Veterans, myself included, gathered in a building in San Francisco last week for a variety of reasons. News reporters roamed the halls looking for stories already written in their heads. They simply needed some veterans, preferably those who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, to give their name and the expected comments about serving our country and the injustice of waiting too long for benefits from the Veterans Administration.

I was struck by the irony of how many times reporters passed by the real story. On the walls were photos and paintings by combat vets who had served in Iraq and Vietnam. Their work said much about who they were and what they had experienced. But their real statement was that they had someone else drop off their artistic perspectives because they, themselves, did not want to attend. It would have been too hard to be around the memories of combat emanating from the broken minds and bodies of other veterans.

The most revealing photos were two self-portraits taken by a former Army platoon sergeant who did three tours in Iraq. In one shot his face is barely discernible while in another, sunlight, pouring through window blinds, strikes the left side of his face, making that side fierce and the shadowy side, lost, even sad. At first glance I thought he was seated in a train–the photo had inner movement to it. He is going somewhere, but does he know where? And does anybody care? On closer inspection the chair is in a house. He is alone, reading, perhaps a book that will help him make decisions.

Then I went back to the other photo where he is looking down at large hand-written words on poster-sized paper.  The only words I can make out are “I” and “be.”  Maybe he is searching for his identity and that would fit with the other photo.

These are two photos our entire country needs to understand.

Less than one percent of our nation serves in the military and overall veterans are about seven percent of the population. Even through family links and friendships, the direct knowledge of a veteran’s burdens is limited. What do these photos say to you? And what could be done to ease their rawness?

Sure, most people believe payment of VA benefits helps life after combat, not only financially but also in terms of having our country acknowledge a person’s military service. Conversely, forcing a veteran to wait years for compensation is slap in the face to those who sacrificed part of their lives for all of us. But monthly government checks, no matter how deserved, don’t erase memories of death and destruction. War is not pleasant and decisions to engage in “shock and awe” have lifelong consequences for people we will never meet, save for a chance moment to view a photograph or two.

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