Recovery Mission

For these Northwest soldiers, after their tour of duty ends, another battle begins.

By Jim Lommasson August 31, 2008 Published in the September 2008 issue of Portland Monthly

LAST YEAR I BEGAN photographing veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars after they’d returned home to the Northwest. Initially, I was motivated by the fact that news articles, which tended to relay factual information about soldiers who were killed, rarely told the stories of those who came back wounded, whether physically or psychologically.

But over time, my reasons for shooting these images became more personal. A decorated veteran of World War II, my 85-year-old father had begun to struggle with symptoms of old age. His sense of time started to collapse; the past became his present. He began to talk about combat experiences he’d suppressed for more than 60 years. I realized that some of his behavior during my childhood—a tendency to withdraw, avoidance of crowds—resembled the post—combat stress exhibited by the recent generation of vets.

I’ve heard that every American knew a soldier during World War II, a fact that placed that war at the forefront of our cultural psyche. But because fewer soldiers have been deployed in the current conflict, not as many of us personally know someone who has fought. I’ve come to see these new veterans as our invisible warriors. Too many of their stories remain untold.

After being discharged, soldiers are largely left alone to process what they experienced in war. They must navigate a complex psychic terrain, one that’s often characterized by overwhelming feelings of shame, distrust, and alienation. Many veterans tend to cope with these emotions through self-destructive behavior—alcohol abuse or bouts of explosive, misdirected rage. Some vets report that in dreams and nightmarish flashbacks, when memories of all that they’ve lived through well up, the enemy seems more elusive and frightening because it’s now coming from within.

The veterans in these pages displayed great courage and generosity by telling their stories. In sharing them, I hope that we are better able to separate the human face of the warrior from the political vagaries of war.

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