So many times the most interesting people are the ones that sit right next to us every day.
Take my friend Jason for instance who has had his share of experiences. Probably more so than any one of us will reach in our lifetime.
Jason is a disabled American Veteran who served our country for 20 years. While in the military, Jason deployed into battle 7 times. He served as a warrant officer, is now retired as a disabled vet, and has so much to be proud of.
However, there is a darker shade in Jason’s eyes now. There are times that I have looked at Jason after knowing some of what this man has been through and wondered how he stays sain. I believe Jason wonders how sometimes too. Maybe it’s the many pills that he is forced to take from being hit with an IUD while at war. Maybe it’s the help he receives from his dog Lola when he wakes from night terrors. Maybe it’s the people he surrounds himself with that he calls friends. I’m certain that it is the love for his two daughters and adopted daughters, that keeps him going and striving every day to be the man he is.
I think that we civilians tend to shy away from asking questions to our vets when they come home from war. We assume they don’t want to talk about it. We assume that it’s best to just be quiet and continue living life.
We, civilians, continue to live life, while our soldiers do not know how to re-conform to normalcy after all they have witnessed.
I asked the questions that no one wanted to ask because I too, needed to know the truth. I asked because I wanted to understand Jason better. I asked because I could see the pain and darkness in his eyes.
This is just part of Jason’s story, told through many different images. I am hoping that this helps bridge the gap, even just a little, to understanding our vets, our wounded, and our warriors.
I asked Jason to come just as he was, I asked him to just be honest.
Our so-called interview started with me asking Jason what he feared. This a question that many of us need to ask ourselves.
Me: Okay Jason, so what do you fear?
Me: Come on, there has to be something you are fearful of.
Jason: Thinking……. My girls, not being able to control everything around them.
Me: How many times did you go to war?
Jason: 7 times
Me: Did you kill anyone?
Jason: Yes lots of people.
Me: Do you remember the first person you killed?
Jason: Yes…..he was a fifteen-year-old kid.
Me: A kid?
Jason: Yes but he wasn’t a kid, not like you and I know. This kid was ready to kill us. They are trained with guns.
Me: What did that do to you?
Jason: The first one messed me up a bit.
Jason: After a while, it just becomes the job.
I showed Jason the back of my camera after I took this photo.
Jason: You know what, that is how I feel most of the time.
Me: Were you in charge of people there?
Jason: Yes, most of the time. I had received promotions and moved up in rank.
Me: What was your job, were you always at war?
Jason: most of the time, yes, but the last time I was in Iraq, I maintained the counter-rocket and mortar systems.
Jason begins to sit tall and roll his shoulders.
Me: Are you okay?
Jason: Yes my neck just gets really stiff.
Me: The neck injury was that from war?
Jason: Yeah, I was in a tank and was the gunner and an RPG hit the back and broke the gunner’s hatch which smashed me in the head.
Me: So did you pass out?
Jason: Yeah for like a minute, but then I came to.
Lea: And did you go to get help?
Jason: There is no getting help, you just have to keep going.
Lea So you kept fighting with an injury?
Me: Jason when is the last time that you had your portrait taken?
Jason: Well, at the ranch, when you took pictures of me petting the horses.
Me: No Jason like a real portrait, one that you could pass on to your girls, one that they can always look to and see their dad?
Jason: Man, I guess when Chey (his youngest daughter) was like 5.
Me: Okay well give me one for them. Smile or laugh for me.
Jason: (Says something crazy to my hubby, something snide and naughty like always, that I do not wish to write down.) 😉
Me: Okay Jason take off your sweater and hoodie so I can see you better.
Jason removes his hoodie and sets down his gun.
Me: Go ahead and keep the gun, it’s you.
Jason: Yeah your right I keep it everywhere with me.
Me: Can I photograph some of your tats?
The lovely Don’t Tread on Me across Jason’s neck was done by my husband who by the way has no tattooing background, but Jason has never cared about things like that. In fact, I asked Jason that same night while we were at his on-base home if I could tattoo my name on his arm. He looked at me, curled his lips down, and said sure. This was the first time we had ever met.
Lots of tribal, skulls and signs of death are displayed all over his arms and back. The not-so-deathly Superman tattoo covers the name of someone he says he wished to forget.
Jason threw himself into MMA to sort out some of his demons and says he loved getting involved in that. He says it was a way to fight without getting in trouble.
Me: Well this last shot we will make you look just like a professional MMA fighter. Your girls will love it!
Me: Thank you for letting me do this.
Jason’s story is all but one of the hundreds and thousands of stories out there. Do all of our soldiers want to talk about it? I’m sure they don’t. I’m sure some wish they could take away the vivid visions, the sounds, and even the smells from their minds and erase them. I’m sure that some will try their damndest to shut it out. I know some will try to forget with every additive opioid swallowed. I know that some have taken it to the grave with them, the moment they took their own life. We should not assume however that all want to remain quiet and hold that burden in. We cannot pretend that nothing has happened while expecting them to get back to being regular citizens and not trained killers. These men and women have to figure out how to live with these new uninvited demons. Demons that seem to wake them in the night. Demons that seem to chase them everywhere they go. The relentless ones. We can’t always just look the other way and be quiet. Sometimes they DO want to talk about it, they just need an opening.
I want to give them the stage.