Sometimes events and images convene in a way that is meant to tell you something about life. It works that way if you are willing to listen. To hear. And hopefully, to understand.
Sunday while flying back from Tampa to Chicago, I sat in the middle seat of an airplane next to a man who slept most of the way, but fitfully. When we approached our destination and some turbulence began, he was visibly anxious and uncomfortable.
I waited through the landing, then turned to him and said, “You don’t like that stuff, huh?”
He smiled a quick smile and replied, “Well, I used to jump out of airplanes so it shouldn’t scare me. But it still does.”
It turns out the young man served in the Airborne in Iraq. “I was a camera guy,” he informed me. “It was my job to take pictures of what we were doing. Our unit.”
He told me that it was a difficult job. “I saw things people don’t want to see,” he said. “Like, I was taking a picture of a kid riding his bike and he just got blown up. Right there. But the military didn’t want to share that photo. There was an election going on and they wanted the news to be good.”
I asked him how he got involved as a photographer. “I spent three months training in photography and three months learning journalism,” he said. “Then they sent me over to Iraq.”
Did he expect to use his photography in civilian life? “I don’t think civilian life will take me,” he responded. “I got too many issues.”
On our way together through the airport I handed him my business card and offered to talk with him some. In turn, he pulled out an identification card that he called the Silver Ticket. “It takes twenty years of service to get this,” he told me. “I started when I was 18. Now I’m 41,” he said, and smiled that quick smile of his. The smile that says a lot, and yet seems to say nothing at the same time.
He still looks a young man. Yet he is now a man for the ages, and told me that he’d collect a certain amount of money for his time and service to his nation. Beyond that, his plans were flexible.
My encounter with that soldier came back into mind when I clicked on a link to an NPR story about the work of military photographer David Gilkey, whose compelling photos give us a small window to the world in which so many of our active duty soldiers live and work and sometimes, die.
“I consider myself lucky,” the soldier from the plane told me as we stepped off the moving belt in the terminal. Lucky indeed.
(Photograph from NPR feature on photographer David Gilkey)