Strangely, I feel lucky to be a journalist when asked to cover solemn events….it gives my life perspective.
When it comes to reality checks, Veterans Day is the one that gets me every time. This year I was asked by the Washington Post to cover a Veterans Day story, in small-town Powell, WY., that at its core was about the powerful bond we form with our dogs.
“Major Mike” was a nine-year-old Belgian Malinois, who served two tours of duty in Iraq. And yes, Major was his rank. He was a war hero, saving countless lives as an Army special operations bomb sniffing dog under the guidance of his war buddy, Sergeant 1st Class Matthew Bessler, a highly-decorated Army Ranger. Bessler served in Iraq, Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia, and was honored with three bronze stars. But when the grind of war caught up with the pair, they came home. PTSD was the culprit.
Until the Iraq War I had seldom heard of PTSD, but through home front war coverage, I witnessed it first hand. It is a crushing illness that ruins lives, takes lives, and eats away at a person’s core until they are no longer the person they once were. PTSD is ruthless. It is the devil.
More than ever, the two needed each other as they fought for their sanity and spirit away from the battlefield. Sgt. Bessler thought, if a dog can be taught to sniff bombs, then maybe he can also be taught to help a buddy cope with PTSD, which is exactly what happened. Dogs never stop giving.
But in the end, the one who saved lives in a war zone, and who saved a life in Powell, WY, lost his to a passing bicyclist who holstered a pistol on his bike and used it out of fear that a long-haired, four-legged war hero might harm him as he rode by. Major Mike was shot and killed…ironically, by a war veteran. The fact that you can survive war, but not home, is tragic.
To honor his best friend, Sgt. Bessler decided to treat Major Mike, like all soldiers who served honorably, to a full-military funeral. The works. A 21-gun salute, followed by the playing of taps, and finally the presentation of a folded American flag. It was a rare, emotional event…apparently only once before.
I was fortunate to meet two of America’s best, one in spirt and the other in the flesh. Sgt. Bessler welcomed me like a friend and allowed me to photograph all the anguish that overcame him that day. He wanted the world to know that ALL war heroes deserve to be honored, and through his grief, I was able to convey that special bond forged by war, admiration, and friendship.
I was lucky to spend my Veterans Day in Powell, WY.
Below are some of my images from that day…click on the first image to start the slide show.
It is always exciting to make the front page of the New York Times, especially on Sunday.
It doesn’t happen often, but when you get the call to be involved in a NYT investigative story, you go. NYT Deputy Picture Editor Beth Flynn needed a portrait right away, and was hoping I could shoot it. It was 450 miles from my home, but she said it was a big story. Was I game? Definitely!
It was a story about how the state of North Dakota gives the oil industry an easy pass when it comes to environmental violations, and to some degree, safety violations. Andrew Rohr, my subject, was badly burned when an oil derrick he was working on erupted into flames and toppled. Rohr later said, “I was a human torch”.
Below are a few more of the pictures I took of Rohr, along with his wife, during the brief time I had with them. Read the story if you have the time.
After more than 30 years of living and working in the South, I’m finally back home…although it took a little longer than expected. It might be my only missed deadline.
Big Sky, Montana is not where I grew up (Oregon, Calif., Nevada, Colorado), but it is close enough. My heart has always resided in the West…its culture, people, and landscapes. I would like to believe that a Western state of mind has always defined who I am.
Atlanta, where I was given the chance to see and experience the world with a camera around my neck, was never quite the right fit, like a pair of new shoes that refused to be broken in. The West, on the other hand, has always been like that old pair of jeans that no matter how faded and tattered, always fit perfect. I never threw those jeans away.
No regrets, though. I made the most of my time south of the Mason-Dixon Line. I was very lucky to experience that world as a journalist with a camera for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, meeting some amazing people along the way, and making some great friends. There is much to miss, but not everything. I have traded in hazy skylines for the mountains, traffic jams for dusty drives, barking neighborhood dogs for bugling elk, and bad air days for powder days.
After traveling the West this summer with my daughter, all in the name of junior golf (she is now playing golf for Seattle University), the dust has settled and I’m back doing what I love…in a place I love.
For the past four years, I have been splitting my time between Atlanta and Montana, wearing the hat of a freelancer, and here are some of my favorite images from those assignments. Stay tuned for more updates from the “Last Best Place”.
Although I didn’t shoot many portraits last year, here are a handful that I like.
My favorite portraits are the ones that don’t look like portraits…more reportage when possible. In the case of Air Force Technical Sergeant Jennifer Smith, who filed an internal complaint against the Air Force alleging that the service turned a blind eye to sexual attacks and harassment, she wanted to look straight into the camera. “I don’t want to be viewed as a victim,” she said. Photographed for the New York Times. ↓
In December, the days are short and the nights are long in Montana, which can screw up your sleeping patterns, but the upside is that your world often meets the nocturnal world. Apparently, moose are not truly nocturnal, just early risers. For about a week in the pre-dawn, two bull moose were drawn to the shrubs that surrounded our Montana digs. Moose are huge animals with big appetites, doing their very best to destroy most of the plant life just outside our windows. It was fun to wake up every morning, and go from window to window looking for our ugly, hungry friends. At times, we got within a few feet, separated by a frosty window. The picture above was shot from our porch, as this big guy got first tracks, illuminated by our porch light. Enjoy.
I have always preferred the album. Great albums are like great picture essays, great novels, great movies… Here are my favs of 2012.
Neil Young & Crazy Horse. “Psychedelic Pill” If you like the sound Neil Young makes with his guitar, you’ll love this album. Maybe the poet isn’t quite what he used to be, but at age 65, he’s still got it when “Old Black” is in his hands. The guy is an American treasure, even if he was born in Canada. My favorite song is the 27-minute “Driftin’ Back”.
I’d never heard of the word “agritainment” until the New York Times asked me to do a video to accompany a story (by reporter Kim Severson) about a farmer who operates, along with his two sons, a corn maze in Milton, TN. Come to find out, agritainment is the fastest growing area within agriculture, and has helped many farmers make a living, and keep their farms.
Worth noting is that I avoided using music for this video, and instead took advantage of ambient sounds, including the cutest voice you’ll ever hear (in the first 30 seconds). (Corn maze aerial courtesy of Shelby Hunton.)