When photographer Nina Berman took Jeremy Feldbusch’s picture at his home in Pennsylvania four years ago, the twenty-four-year-old Iraq veteran trembled at the sound of the camera shutter.
Feldbusch, a U.S. Army sergeant, lost his vision and suffered massive brain injuries in a mortar attack near Haditha in 2003.
“I could see it was scaring him,” says Berman, who photographed Feldbusch shortly after he returned from Iraq. Today, she writes, Feldbusch's world "is black from morning to night," and "titanium plates hold his brain together."
Feldbusch’s picture is part of a traveling exhibit called Purple Hearts, a series of twenty portraits and interviews with American soldiers wounded in Iraq. The exhibit, which debuted in 2003, is currently on display in New York, Maryland, and Brussels. At a time when scandals like Walter Reid are awakening policymakers to the struggles of wounded solidiers, Berman's straightforward, candid images demonstrate the human cost of war beyond the usual casualty figures.
A documentary photographer, Berman began searching the Internet for names of wounded soldiers shortly after the U.S. invasion. Using Google, she tracked down veterans all over the country through news articles and websites. When she called to ask if she could take their picture, "almost all of them said yes," Berman recalls. Her goal was to shed light on the “physical and psychological problems of returning veterans” – an issue she thinks goes ignored by the media.
The portraits, shot across the U.S. in soldiers’ homes, military hospitals, and army bases, show veterans grappling with their injuries in their everyday surroundings. “I didn’t try to hide anything or ask them to stand anywhere,” Berman said.
In his portrait, Feldbusch stares into the camera with bruised, long-lashed eyes. Behind him, two green berets and a set of dog tags dangle from the antlers of a mounted deer’s head. A photograph of the former Feldbusch, tall and handsome in his military uniform, hangs underneath. Stuffed animals – including a bald eagle and a teddy bear clad in army fatigues – adorn a nearby table.
For many of the soldiers, standing before the camera was a grueling experience. “I was certainly aware of how much physical pain they were in at that moment,” said Berman. “We often stopped or took a break because they were in so much pain.”
The pain is palpable in Berman's portrait of Corporal Tyson Johnson, 22, who suffered massive internal injuries during a mortar attack on Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. In the portrait, Tyson lies shirtless on his bed in Prichard, Alabama, staring expressionless at the ceiling. A scar, the thickness of a television cable, snakes from his chest to his belly button, pinkish-red against his dark skin.
Another poignant photograph is that of Private first class Alan Lewis, who lost both legs after a land mine exploded beneath his Humvee in Baghdad. Dressed in a crisp blue dress shirt, Lewis, 23, sits on his bed, his khaki pant leg rolled up to reveal an artificial leg. His muscular frame is hunched over, and his head rests heavily on his right hand, in a pose that looks like pure anguish.
“That photo is deceiving,” says Berman. "He was tired...The actual moment of clicking the camera was him being tired."
The soldiers whom Berman photographed expressed a range of reactions to the war. Some were indifferent about the politics behind the invasion; others were newly angry at the Bush administration; others were simply traumatized.
One soldier was grateful. Specialist Sam Ross, 21, was blinded and had his left leg amputated after a bomb exploded during a munitions operation in Baghdad in 2003. Still, he said that Iraq was the “best experience” of his life. "His father is in jail for homicide, his mother walked out on him as a child," Berman writes.
Berman photographed Ross in a field near his trailer home in rural Pennsylvania, where he was living alone. (Houses for Truth, a charitable organization, eventually built Ross a home.) Wearing a serious expression under his Superman baseball hat, he leans on his left leg, a metal rod that extends down to his New Balance sneaker. It is hard to tell that he is blind.
Berman found that for many of her subjects, the military represented their best hope for a better life. Like Ross, Alan Lewis joined the military to escape the "culture of violence and drugs" he encountered growing up in Chicago. “I asked him, did he ever think he’d be injured or killed ,” said Berman. “He said that his dad had been killed, his sister had been killed, his best friend had been killed. What’s more dangerous – Chicago or Iraq?”
Berman also found that getting adequate care depends on “how savvy an individual veteran is in navigating the system.” Wounded veterans must provide detailed documentation of every injury in order to receive disability benefits, but “some people lack the money to buy a cell phone card to stay on the phone with a bureaucrat for twenty five minutes.” Others lack cars, family, and simple know-how.
After having his portrait taken, Tyson Johnson phoned Berman, who lives in New York, from his home in Alabama. “He wanted me to get the number for a hospital in Mississippi,” she said. “I just went on my computer and got the number. Simple things can make a huge difference.”