“I like this picture because if I had to guess, he was on patrol or had a long day of fighting and is just tired and probably had two to three hours of sleep. He just kicked off his boots, turned on his music and passed out.” That’s Major Willie Jumper talking about Tim Hetherington’s portrait of Luke Nevala taken in Afghanistan (pictured above, lower left, and below), now on view in Courage and Strength: Portraits of Those Who Have Served.

Tim Hetherington (British-American, 1970 – 2011). ‘Luke Nevala sleeping, Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan’, 2008. Digital c-print
© Tim Hetherington, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York

Last week, as we neared Veterans Day, Hawaii Public Radio culture reporter Noe Tanigawa invited four soldiers stationed on O‘ahu who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan to the museum to share their thoughts about the exhibition and their war experiences. It was a very moving two hours. You can hear them speak in two segments on HPR: segment 1, segment 2. We are very grateful to Tanigawa for conducting these interviews, to Sergeant First Class Karry James, of the 94th Air and Missile Defense Command, for organizing the group, and especially the three soldiers who spoke so openly.

Jumper, who has done three tours of duty—Kandahar 2004-2005, Baghdad 2006, Diyala 2010-2011—looks at Hetherington’s work and says that even though they aren’t battlefield images, they do depict the full scope of war. “I see fatigue—exhaustion, 20 hours awake.” He points to an adjacent wall where Suzanne Opton’s portraits of soldiers with a loved one hang (pictured below is one of them). “Even the guys with their families—they’re there, but they’re not there.”

Suzanne Opton (American, 1954).’Soldier Benson: 368 days in Iraq,’ 2005. Waxed black and white digital print. © Suzanne Opton. Courtesy Suzanne Opton.

“I know what it’s like to be up for 48 hours and then sleep for six,” says Captain Susan Lindsey of the U.S. Army 5th Battlefield Coordination Detachment, “I feel everything has been represented here.” After enlisting she learned for the first time that on one side of her family, she comes from a long line of service men. “It made me so proud to be the first woman in my family serving in the Armed Forces.” She becomes emotional when she adds, “I feel like I am fighting for my Mom.” Her mother is a naturalized citizen who was born in the Philippines.

Captain Susan Lindsey being interviewed by HPR’s Noe Tanigawa in front of photographs of veterans by Suzanne Opton.

Sergeant First Class Nohea Nakooka-Williams contemplates photographs by Peter Hapek.

Sergeant First Class Nohea Nako‘oka-Williams, of the 2nd Battalion 94th Artillery,  sits in a chair looking drained. “It opened up some wounds,” she says. She points to Peter Hapak’s series of tattoos on servicemen. “That’s my favorite portion [of the exhibition]. Because it shows the wounds and they’re not ashamed of them.”

Through Nakooka-Williams I learn the tattoos are a roadmap of personal war experiences, such as the quotation from the Book of Jeremiah (“In Iraq I read the book of Joshua and Jeremiah”). “This is how we express ourselves. Like that guy covered his scar with a tattoo, cause it’s a constant reminder.”

“It’s a very good, emotional exhibit. It’s a great show of the way we live,” says Nakooka-Willams.  But she also feels she wasn’t ready for it. “It’s not so much the pictures—it’s the captions. The best quote I’ve seen is ‘who wants to earn a purple heart?’ We don’t come in wanting awards. You don’t join the Army saying you want a Purple Heart. It’s the same with the scars—it’s a constant reminder on a daily basis. [For service men and women who have served] it would be good to bring your spouse here to understand the life you’ve lived, and break through the barriers.”

The museum invites people who have seen the exhibition to share their thoughts and reactions on our Courage and Strength blog. Help others understand.