I was standing in the small surgical room of a makeshift hospital in Afghanistan when this hand-painted message on the dingy white door, caught my eye. Everything over there was crumbling apart or newly built from plywood – juxtaposition everywhere you turned.
One couldn’t open or close this frail door without seeing the scrawled message and it stayed with me long after leaving that small room, that small base, that desolate country.
I was there writing a story about the surgical team and their swift actions as they saved not only the lives of our forces but most recently a young boy who stepped on an IED. His father carried him at least two miles to the gates where U.S. forces received him and his precious boy – a pint-sized casualty of war.
“It’s not supposed to be this way,” I thought as they shared their story, “the unnecessary harm.” The same thought would visit me again when I returned home from our deployment with all soldiers present and began to lose them to suicide.
I began to realize that we classify items to make sense of them. As a soldier, I suppose I learned how to do this with pain, confusion and even death. Perhaps it was a way to make peace with those moments of impact as if preparing myself to be ok with that fate when it found me or those around me.
As my unit collected together on one base for our trip home, I found that soldiers did the same with their deployment experiences after missions, making sure it was known the things they endured were harder than the soldiers stationed elsewhere. What it all meant was this: there are times when our human-ness overshadows our humanity and we classify as if to make our experience of hardship or loss more valid that someone else’s.
It’s all hard. It’s all painful. It’s all in its own context.
I didn’t need to share the same mother with the battle buddies I served with to see them as members of my family – service did that for us. I didn’t have to know the breadth of their lives to grieve the loss of it. I knew them when they were living their best moments – not moments of luxury and privilege, but moments of grit, selfless sacrifice and vulnerability.
Death does not require time in service, it knows no geographical boundaries and it does not discriminate. Those who sign up to serve also volunteer to wear a cloak of anonymity. It’s not recognition they seek, they serve because they are patriots – answering the call put on their hearts. And it is here that we not only honor those sacrifices made, we make sure their names and memories live on.
My days as a military photojournalist have come to an end but I pick up a new mission now – one with you, my dear friends. Together we will learn the stories of the names we wear on our race bibs as we compete in their memory. It’s important that we not only remember them but that we KNOW them – my brothers and sisters in arms, who selflessly sacrificed for all of our well-being.
Let us remember that men and women died for us today – in training exercises, on routine missions, and in combat. And so I pose to you the question our painter posed to himself that day in Afghanistan – are you living a life worth dying for?
U.S. Army Veteran, Photo Journalist