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(WGHP) — Operating a camera is as “behind the scenes” as someone could possibly get, but, looking through a viewfinder, it’s hard not to feel a connection with whoever is on the other side of the lens. It’s a connection that is so close in its honesty while also being extremely uncomfortable in its distance. The person behind the camera sees it all because that’s part of the job. What’s going on in the background? Is my subject still in focus? How’s my exposure? Paying attention to every detail, we can also see the moment that comes right after a question is asked. In trying to find an answer, the eyes wander, the back straightens and, with a shift in the seat, the person we are interviewing is, if only for a split second, somewhere else.
When Rasheeda Kabba and I interviewed Army Veteran Jim Young at his coffee shop in Burlington, I knew where his mind was. In 2007, I dropped out of high school, and by the end of 2008, I was an Infantryman in the 25th Infantry Division kicking dirt in Samarra, Iraq. So, when Jim detailed his work with the Wounded Warriors Project and spoke about the visible and invisible injuries of military service, I no longer paid attention to the background or exposure. I saw faces and remembered names.
People like Pvt. Sean McCune, Jan. 11, 2009, killed by friendly fire. Lieutenant Daniel Hyde, killed in action on March 7, 2009. Then there was Sergeant Randy Agno, perhaps my closest friend at the time. He died on April 27 by suicide. Randy was gone before the medivac arrived, and, to this day, I can’t hear a helicopter in the distance without thinking of him. That Spring in 2009, at just 20 years old, I experienced lifetime-defining trauma that I wouldn’t even begin to understand for years, and I wasn’t the only one.
On our return to the United States, my unit saw every behavioral issue the Uniform Code of Military Justice had a punishment for. The soldier who was standing next to McCune when he was shot went AWOL for four days and finally turned himself in – he was in Alaska. When I asked him why he disappeared like that, he said he didn’t remember. I remember thinking that’s a heck of thing not to remember, but he eventually clarified that he didn’t remember any of it. He bought a plane ticket, flew across the country and was gone four days in a complete blackout.
These stories and every story of veterans are similar, whether they made it home or didn’t. It doesn’t matter if they’ve lost limbs or struggle with PTSD. It doesn’t matter if they are homeless or running for congress. The story of every veteran is that they live and die with a sense of purpose, and the worst thing that can happen is to lose that.
That’s why I think it’s important to share the stories of veterans. When we were shooting at Salvation Coffee in Burlington, I kept thinking to myself, “This guy and I are both doing what we love.” Him and I both have challenges we have to face, but we are doing fine all things considered. My hope for this story is that other veterans see it and realize that there are vets out in the community that are making it work, and I’m glad I got to be a part of it.