'A Country, A People' - Photo exhibit on Afghanistan opens at Arts Council
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on January 23, 2011 1:50 AM
Her eyes fixated on those of a young woman donning Air Force blues, Lew Rose extended a hand.
"I just love your work," she said, looking, for a moment, over Senior Airman MacKenzie Lang's shoulder at one of the photos she took during her most recent stint in Afghanistan. "You should be so proud."
The airman smiled.
"Thank you so much," she said. "I really appreciate it."
"Well, they are just fantastic," Mrs. Rose replied. "They really are National Geographic quality."
Members of Seymour Johnson Air Force Base's 4th Fighter Wing joined nearly 100 local residents inside the Arts Council of Wayne County Friday evening for the opening of a photo exhibit inspired by their service.
Tech. Sgt. Tammie Moore was among those whose work was featured.
"We went up to the top of this mountain to get to a village. ... It was a handmade road," she said, pointing to an image she captured of the landscape below their convoy's path. "At one point, everybody stopped and looked down. ... It's really pretty desolate."
The rough terrain in Afghanistan is only one of truths revealed in the Arts Council's "A Country, A People" exhibit.
But 4th Commander Col. Patrick Doherty said it helps tell the story of the people who live in it.
"It's a very hard, rugged country," he said. "It's incredibly, incredibly rough ... and incredibly beautiful."
And the same can be said of those who call it home, the colonel added.
So as he viewed those photos submitted, mostly, by men and women he is charged with leading, he was "awestruck" by just how well those images captured the people American service members have been fighting to liberate for nearly a decade.
"The stories are real, vivid and raw -- just like the terrain and culture you see here," Doherty said. "These stories that these airmen brought tonight ... are just incredible."
333rd Fighter Squadron Capt. John Peltier shared one of those stories after talking, briefly, about a photo he took of the snow-covered Hindu Kush Mountains from the cockpit of an F-15E Strike Eagle.
The shot took him back to a particular mission -- one that has stayed with him long after his return from combat.
His Strike Eagle was among the aircraft providing air support for an American raid on a substantial weapons cache.
Their objective: To prevent an ambush.
"Right as the American forces were done with their raid, I found an insurgent on top of a ridge line with an RPG," Peltier said.
So without hesitation, the officer neutralized the threat -- saving countless lives on the ground.
"I mean, you're talking about 150 soldiers," he said. "It would have been pretty bad."
And other airmen had stories, too.
Like Lang, who, while scanning a photograph she took of Afghan men cooking bread, reflected on the simplicity of the people she came into contact with during her tour.
"You came across these types of things everywhere," she said. "They did this every day."
Unlike the airman, who, despite seeing proof of her presence in the country all over the Arts Council Friday, still can't quite believe she was there.
"It's almost like, 'Wow. Was I really there taking this photo?'" she said. "It's just unreal."
"A Country, A People" is scheduled to remain open to the public until Feb. 25 and local airmen and residents will have access to it Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
And as they view dozens of images of a country most have never seen, those who captured them hope the experience will ingrain in their minds the same perspective each airman said they brought home from Afghanistan: that those who live there are not so different than the ones sent to free them.
Tech. Sgt. Daniel Ruffino learned that the day he saw Afghan children playing in the snow outside the wire.
"They were building a snowman. They had the little sticks in it like our kids would have," he said. "I know it sounds crazy, but I never would have thought that Afghan children would build snowmen. ... They are just families trying to live and survive."
Moore got the same sense the day two young boys sought relief from sore teeth from Allied medics.
And then there was Lang who, looking, again, at her photo of Afghan men making bread, said the values of those in her photos seemed fairly clear during her interactions with them.
"They really value family and their traditions," she said. "And this is one of them."