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Photographer interviews veterans on the homefront

Conversation series aims to engage critical thought and discussion


by: PHOTO: JIM LOMMASSON - War veteran Arturo Franco said he is haunted by some of the things he did for the U.S. military in Iraq. 'I did not believe in why we where there. I went because I felt like I owed my friends that were killed over there,' Franco said.Freelance photographer Jim Lommasson has spent the past six years interviewing soldiers upon their return home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

He’s compiling their photographs and writings for his third book of illustrated oral histories, “EXIT WOUNDS: Life After War — Soldiers’ Stories.”

Lommasson recently shared highlights from his work while visiting Mt. Hood Community College as part of a monthly conversation series held in the student union lounge at lunchtime.

The intent of the statewide Conversation Project is to engage people in thoughtful, challenging discussions about ideas critical to their daily lives.

For Lommasson, his conversation centered on war and the open emotional wounds veterans face upon re-entering their lives at home.

He presented “Life After War: Photography and Oral Histories of Coming Home” on Thursday, Jan. 16.

The Portland photographer said he knew back in 2003, when the U.S. military first entered Iraq, there would be a whole new generation of soldiers coming home from war.

A non-veteran from the Vietnam era, Lommasson said he remembers how poorly Vietnam vets were treated when they set their boots back on U.S. soil.

But then, the Vietnam war was televised and nearly everyone knew someone who was fighting in the war.

Now things are different.

"We don’t know the people we are sending to war,” Lommasson said.

There is a quote written on a wall in Baghdad that reads: “America is not at war, Marines are. America is at the mall.”

The general populous is free to disengage from the war overseas, he said.

Growing up, Lommasson knew his father fought in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II, but he never talked about it.

His father’s silence was in stark contrast to the stories he heard from his friends’ dads, who recounted noble tales of war. Not until he was a grown man, and his father was in his 80s, did he learn about his father’s war experience. The two started taking walks, followed by long silences.

“He was reliving WWII,” Lommasson said. He realized his father had kept quiet all those years because he thought he was protecting his son and family from the ugliness of war.

“My father spent 60 years holding it in, and that wasn’t healthy for him,” he said. “We have an obligation to hear their stories and help bring them out of the quiet.”

The photographer made it his mission to find returning soldiers and to provide them with an outlet.

by: OUTLOOK PHOTO: JIM CLARK - Freelance photographer Jim Lommasson displays photos from his presentation, Life After War: Photography and Oral Histories of Coming Home.“I wanted to find the soldiers’ voices,” he said.

Lommasson started attending Veterans of Foreign Wars meetings and looking for outlets, such as Portland State University, to meet local veterans, and soon veterans all over the country.

“Instantly, everybody I talked to was so welcoming and openly trusting,” he said.

Lommasson began asking veterans what it’s like to come home, how they are treated and what problems they face. He talked to broken veterans and brokenhearted mothers.

“Mom, I wouldn’t wish war on my worst enemy,” a twice-deployed Marine told his mother.

Lommasson said some of the issues soldiers face come from stereotypes from the left and the right. Liberals may demonize soldiers because they don’t approve of war and don’t understand why anyone would join the military, while conservatives mythologize warriors and undermine any legitimate questioning of military conflict, Lommasson said. He said people need to move beyond stereotypes and realize soldiers are just like anyone else.

“All join the war for different reasons,” Lommasson said. Many enlist because they want to be part of something bigger than themselves, he said.

One former soldier he met had dreamed of leading men into battle since he was old enough to play with G.I. Joe dolls. On the first day of his first deployment to Iraq, he was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and his leg was blown off.

There are immoral and moral wars, Lommasson said, but the most common thing he has heard soldiers say is, “I wasn’t fighting for America, democracy or anything other than the soldier on my left and the soldier on my right.”

After soldiers return home, Lommasson has heard many say they felt the need to go back and be with fellow soldiers. Despite being physically or mentally broken, they enlist for another deployment.

For those who come home to stay, adjusting to civilian life can be difficult.

Lommasson interviewed a disabled veteran struggling to find a job and to pay back student loans. He said the only way the veteran could get Citibank to defer his loan payments was by threatening to blow his brains out.

“Vets are languishing,” Lommasson said. “They don’t feel like we are covering their backs.”

The photographer clicks through photos he’s taken of soldiers who have come home.

The images open a window into their lives after war: the warm embrace of wives, husbands, children, parents; a return to the farm; carefree parties; isolation in their rooms; former soldiers working in the U.S. Senate; speaking at conferences; volunteering to help other veterans.

The photographer also reveals the lives of soldiers still in harm’s way with images depicting the Iraqi desert, young Afghans carrying plastic guns, colorful architecture, machine guns and carnage.

Lommasson says the “d” should be dropped from post-traumatic stress disorder. He views PTSD as soldiers experiencing a sense of betrayal by their country, superiors, family and friends.

“It is the human response to trauma,” he said. “It’s a broken machine, not a flaw.”

The U.S. needs a better mechanism to separate soldiers from the military and reintroduce them to their homes, one that nurtures their humanity, he said.

“Not only do we need to give them a hug, handshake and Band-Aid, we need to take care of them for the rest of their lives."

Lommasson was surprised to learn that many of the soldiers he talked to were “pretty remorseful about their role in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

“Don’t call me a hero,” they say.

When called heroes, the veterans instantly reflect back to the worst day they had in the military when, in the name of duty, they were forced to make a choice to kill or be killed.

Lommasson said since starting his project six years ago, the suicide rate among veterans is up from 18 to 22 veterans who kill themselves every day.

“There are some fundamental problems with how we treat vets,” he said. “And part of it is how we welcome them home.”

A man sitting in the audience at the student union said he could understand why his grandfather, a decorated World War II veteran, never talked about the war.

“Our fathers ... maybe their silence was a way to protect us,” he said.

But after befriending so many veterans, earning their trust and stepping into their lives, Lommasson said, “They do need to talk. They need to tell their stories.”

He said the community should reach out and listen, not judge.

“My feeling is, these stories and you reaching out can save a life.”

Lommasson received the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from The Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University for his first book, “Shadow Boxers: Sweat, Sacrifice and the Will to Survive in American Boxing Gyms.”

His second book is “Pentimiento: Portland’s Lost and Found Carousel.” His deadline for his new book and traveling exhibition, “EXIT WOUNDS: Soldiers’ Stories — Life after Iraq and Afghanistan,” is March 1.

Check out Jim's work at: http://lommassonpictures.com