Over the weekend, I was invited to Outdoor Odyssey, which is a multi-faceted nonprofit corporation founded in 1998 whose primary mission is to serve area youth with a mentor and provide a unique wilderness experience at its 500-acre camp. In addition to providing guidance to local youth, the camp is also active with the Wounded Warriors program, which was the reason for my visit. During the previous week, Outdoor Odyssey hosted several dozen US Marines who were recovering from various wounds they received in the military and now preparing to reenter civilian life again. I was fortunate enough to spend most of Thursday and Friday with the men and women at the camp and in that short time, I was inspired, intimidated, honored, ashamed, and simply amazed.
My very first encounter after arriving at the camp was with retired US Marine Corps Major General T.S. Jones; a highly energetic, passionate man who is born to lead and inspires all those who meet him and also the man who founded Outdoor Odyssey almost 15 years ago. After a brief conversation with General Jones, I moved inside one of the buildings where several Marines were navigating the rope confidence course at the camp. I want to preface this next part by saying that, while I was a student at Pitt-Johnstown, I visited Outdoor Odyssey twice; once as a participant with a class and a second to document another class’ visit. On both occasions, the students were tasked with navigating the same rope course the Marines were currently on. Every student that navigated the course was healthy and in good physical shape but several still had problems completing it.
So to see these two Marines high on the ropes without a complaint or sign of slowing down was simply awe-inspiring. Here are two Marines, with only one leg combined between the two of them, navigating the rope course without much issue and working as a team to complete their mission. It was only 30 minutes into my visit and already I was left without words to describe how incredible these men and women are. They may have been wounded as a result of combat but disabled, not even close…
Take a close look at the shirt in the second image below. These men and women are real life Supermen, indeed.
That night I ate dinner with the group and listened as they asked questions to a panel of college professors and administrators about college and life after the military. It was eye-opening to hear them ask about how they would be seen by other students. Every person in the room had combat experience of one form or another overseas, yet they are worried about entering college, something nearly all of us take for granted today. I had never heard this perspective before and honestly never even thought much about it. I guess I thought it was an easy choice for them but I was very wrong. In the military, discipline is strong and every soldier works toward the same goal but in a college environment, discipline is not so strong. Things such as texting while professors are talking is common amongst students but to a soldier, it’s something they wouldn’t consider doing, they are there to learn and listen, not text and distract everyone. Pitt-Johnstown is a highly ranked military-friendly school and during my four years there, I met many former soldiers. I look back at it differently now, wondering how they felt at UPJ and how they saw the student body.
The next morning I arrived back at the camp to focus on meeting some of the veterans on a more personal level and shoot their portraits. I only had about two hours to shoot but ended up talking with eleven veterans, ten from the present wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and one from Vietnam. Each had their own stories to share and can be read in the gallery on my website, but I’ll highlight a few here.
Below is Jordy O’Neill who joined the US Marine Corps on January 25, 2005 as a way to straighten his life out. He admits that he was making the wrong choices in his life but he knows becoming a Marine was the best choice he’s ever made and he’s making his mom proud too. Jordy served a total of three tours, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, and was wounded by an IED blast.
I also met Jacob De La Garza who joined the US Marine Corps in October 2003 at the age of 21. Before enlisting, Jacob was a manager at a Pizza Hut but quickly realized that he wanted to make a change with his life and serve his country. Becoming a Marine was a lifelong dream of his and he is proud to have accomplished it.
Jacob served three tours in Iraq as an infantryman with the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines Regiment, 1st Marine Division based at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, California. After completing his third tour in Iraq, he spent the next two years at the Basic School Combat Instructor in Quantico, Virginia and then deployed to Afghanistan.
While out on a patrol as a squad leader, Jacob came to a crossroads and was forced to choose between two paths, over a hill or between several buildings through town. He choose the hill while his engineer went through the town but he also knew that their position was extremely dangerous since the enemy knew US soldiers would be forced to travel these paths to continue into town.
After realizing the increasing danger his squad was facing, he ordered them to fallback. Jacob was the last man in his squad to turn and leave but was hit by a command-pull IED before he could reach safety. [A command-pull IED is a type of improvised explosive device that is manually triggered by an enemy hiding nearby.] He lost his left leg as a result of the attack.
Jacob, now 29, is beginning an internship with the Military Police and plans on completing a full 20 years in the Marine Corps. He wants to work in law enforcement if he must end his career early and the experience he will gain with the MP’s will give him the background and skills he needs to achieve success.
After Jacob left, Michael Gonzalez came onto my set. He entered the US Marine Corps in July 2007 at 17 years old because of the events on September 11, 2001. The attacks he witnessed that day as a young teenager struck something deep inside of him and he chose to do something about it as soon as he could.
He served a tour in Afghanistan as an infantryman. While on what was expected to be an 18 hour patrol, he came under fire and entered into a three day firefight with the enemy. After the fighting ended he led his team out to conduct a BDA (Battle Damage Assessment).
He stepped down from his Team Leader position to take the point on the way back to the FOB when his metal detector gave a strong tone indicating the presence of metal below him. After kneeling down, he noticed the disturbed ground and immediately yelled for his team to move back quickly. Because the enemy constructed IED’s out of plastic to avoid detection by metal detectors, Mike was actually standing above the explosive when it detonated; his metal detector had detected the metal in the wires leading to the explosive.
When he leaves the Marine Corps he plans to go to San Diego, CA to open a Chic Filet franchise.
The last person I met for the day was Rithey Yoeurth who entered the US Marine Corps on November 19, 2001 at 22 years old because of the events on September 11, 2001. Before enlisting he worked odd jobs but 9/11 pushed him to do something different and he saw the Marines as a way to give back.
He served three tours in Iraq, including the initial push into Ramadi as an infantryman.
During the night on April 9, during his second deployment in Iraq, his squad was driving along Route Diamond, a place known for having IEDs, after completing a security patrol during the day. Rithey hadn’t changed the lenses in his glasses from the darkened day lenses to the clear, nighttime lenses and thus wasn’t wearing them at the time. As they passed a market along the route, an IED detonated just a few feet from Rithey’s vehicle. However, since it was buried too deep in the ground and full of water, the damage it caused was reduced.
Rithey was knocked out and the other Marines in the vehicle were thrown from their positions. He described the feeling of the explosion as filling a grill with lighter fluid and tossing a match on it with your face just an inch away. He received burns across his face and other injuries to his body. He says now that had their been a second explosion or attack on his men, the outcome would have been much worse than it was.
When he finishes his duty with the Marines, Rithey plans to open a bait and tackle shop.
After very quickly packing up my gear, I joined the rest of the group who were traveling to the Flight 93 Memorial in Stoystown, PA. We were blessed with clear skies and warm temperatures on the day of the visit.
Below is the boulder that marks the exact spot the plane impacted the ground.
When we arrived, a park ranger met the entire group and personally thanked them for what they had done. He then went on to talk about September 11, 2001 and specifically what took place in the skies above and in the field behind the group. At one point, he stopped and asked how many of the veterans joined the Marine Corps because of September 11; every hand shot proudly into the air.
Below, General Jones speaks with the group.
The ranger went on to speak about the 40 passengers and crew aboard the plane that lost their lives when the plane crashed. All aboard recognized what was happening and instead of sitting back, they chose to stand up and fight. They left messages with their loved ones not to say “I’ll see you soon.” but rather, “Goodbye.” They knew they weren’t going to survive and they sacrificed themselves for their country. They were the first soldiers to fight in the war on terrorism and they’re actions saved the lives of thousands.
Just like the men and women aboard Flight 93, the Marines standing at the memorial made the choice to stand up and protect their country. They were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for people they didn’t even know simply because they were Americans. The memorial clearly had a strong effect on every one there and many of the Marines spent time with the names of each person who died aboard the flight.
I began my veterans portrait project with the intent of sharing the stories of our nation’s veterans with those around me but these two days were an experience I never expected. The men and women I met aren’t my grandparents age, they are the same as me. They have the same hobbies as me and grew up seeing the same events as me. The biggest difference is the path they chose to take after high school. I went to college but they went to Iraq and Afghanistan.
In talking with them, a lot mentioned they feel that some of their peers have a feeling of “who cares” about the war. They don’t appreciate what these Marines and other soldiers like them went through for them. Hearing this slightly changed my goal of this project. I want to capture and preserve not only the stories of all generations of veterans but perhaps even more importantly, I want to make sure that my generation and those that follow me, not only recognize but understand the tremendous sacrifices a soldier makes when heading to war.
Every country needs a military to defend itself. Of the more than 300 million people living in the United States today, just 1% have decided to step up and defend those around them. Without this 1%, I would almost certainly not being writing this post and you would not be reading it.
What is truly great about the United States is that everyone is free to believe what they want and express those feelings how they choose. Regardless of your feelings about the current wars though, you must recognize that these men and women truly made great sacrifices for you and me. Let’s not forget what they went through for our country and be sure to thank them whenever we meet them.
Every photo from the weekend can be seen here.
More to come…