— By David Guttenfelder —
For two decades I photographed war. My work took me to countries ravaged by combat, and places all too often forgotten
by the world. Congo, Kosovo, Gaza, Liberia. Finally, it took me to the front lines of the American military’s
bloodiest battlegrounds, to Iraq and Afghanistan and the young men and women I would come to know so well.
A photographer, even a combat photographer, is no soldier. After a couple of months on each assignment, I could always choose to leave. But I went back to war, year after year, always looking for ways to share what those military men and women endured in Afghanistan and Iraq. I traveled the streets of Basra and Baghdad as Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed, riding with exhausted Marines who by then were fueled by little more than adrenaline. In the Afghan lowlands, in villages where opium is the currency and poverty is everywhere, I slept beside young men in shallow foxholes that looked so much like graves.
In those grim places, American military members tried to make lives for themselves. They fed me and protected me. And I tried to ensure no one back home would forget what they were doing.
Like so many soldiers, I came home thinking I was leaving those conflicts behind me. I was wrong. When I got to America, I found myself confronted with the other side of war, and the reality that the military’s deadliest battlegrounds aren’t across the globe, but across
Each day in America, 22 vets commit suicide. That’s two starting football squads a day. A commercial airliner every three weeks.
A 9/11 every four-and-a-half months. To put this into scale,
14 years of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan have resulted in approximately 6,000 US combat deaths.
In that same period of time, the next 14 years, an estimated 112,000 military men and women will die by suicide. Which means that, in some twisted way, coming home from war is more dangerous than leaving to fight in one.
Over the course of a week earlier this year, I traveled over 5,500 miles and visited five families struggling with the aftermath of suicides. These mothers, wives, children and friends opened up their homes to me. In the wake of their tragedies I saw the remnants of war. In one, a suicide note written in a notebook to be found later. In another, a hole in the ceiling left by the fatal bullet. In all, the scars of wounds that haven’t yet healed.
Libby Busbee’s son, William, enlisted after high school. He was Army Special Forces. When I saw his photo, he looked, or felt, familiar. Maybe I knew him. He was deployed to Afghanistan’s Pesh Valley, and I was embedded there with the Army around the same time. Or maybe he just looked like so many other young men with whom I shared food, living quarters, and a hope of returning home. William’s convoy was attacked one day on a road winding through Afghanistan. The brain injuries he sustained led to his honorable discharge.
He went back to America struggling with PTSD and TBI. He was home, but his war wasn’t over.
On March 20, 2012, William texted his mother and told her he loved her. Fearing this was a goodbye, she and his two young sisters
sped home. They found William sitting in his brand new Dodge Charger in the carport. He had a gun and was surrounded by police.
Libby stood with her daughters, powerless, and pleaded with the officers to let her approach her son. Then William pulled the trigger.