When I was growing up in Columbus, Ohio in the 1970s, every image of war and American soldiers I had came from my father, who served in Vietnam as a Medic. His time in the army was not something he went into detail about, but I would catch glimpse of it now and then when he would be reminded of a story from that time of his life.
Several years later after my father passed away, I found myself drawn to the images of our current conflict in the Middle East. In 2006, I applied to be embedded with the US military in as a freelance photographer. My main objective was to capture the day-to-day lives of the soldiers and to gain first-hand knowledge of what they were going through. In a strange way I also was hoping to learn a bit more about my father and how his military experience shaped who he was.
Since then, I have visited Afghanistan three times. The first time I was invited to photograph the 10th Mountain Division at a tiny firebase called Kamdesh. Kamdesh is in northeast Afghanistan, five miles from the Pakistan border. There, the troops patrol the mountains on foot in search of the Taliban. I returned to Afghanistan a few months later, this time to a small firebase called the Korengal Outpost in the Korengal Valley, along frequently targeted supply line between Pakistan and Kabul. This past spring (April 2009) I returned for a third time, now to South- Eastern province of Paktika, the epicenter of the newly escalated conflict.
During all of my embeds, I slept in the same bunker as the troops, ate the same MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) and accompanied small squads on foot patrols through the rugged terrain. The average age of the soldiers was about 21. I found that most of them didn’t care or talk about politics, but would rather update their “Facebook” page or watch the latest music video. After all, not long ago they were on their high school football teams and worrying about their grades. One solder I met said: “I joined the Army so I could go to college but all I’ve done is get shot at.”
Today as our nation’s interest dramatically shifts from Iraq to Afghanistan and other areas of conflict, the conversations are mostly around politics, strategy and money. But regardless of one’s views, the sons, daughters, mothers and fathers that are fighting there deserve to have their stories told. That is my goal with these images.
Before my trips, my relationship with my father had given me a unique understanding of soldiers and the hardships they face in the decisions they make. Though I was able to leave Afghanistan without a scratch in my body armor, with each trip I returned home with an even deeper respect and empathy for the men and women I spent time with. My hope is that when looking at my photographs, the viewer feels the same.