This collaborative project with Richmond, Virginia, photographer Mark Mitchell, himself a Navy veteran, explores local military veterans’ service through portraiture and oral histories. Subjects share their stories in conflicts from World War II to present day and reflect on how these experiences have shaped their lives and values. Mitchell has photographed and interviewed more than 200 World War II and Korean War veterans in local senior living communities since 2011 for an exhibition titled "When We Were Young." The project with the Valentine, "Faces of Freedom, Stories of Service," adds to this original exhibit with new photographs focusing on veterans of more recent conflicts, the Vietnam War through the present day.
“It was one of the important periods of my life. When I am on my way to sleep, I often think of a mission, the crew, or the squad. I live with a lot of those memories. I sometimes wonder how it might have turned out differently, we were lucky."
U.S. Army Air Force, 1942-1945
Bomber Pilot, 40 missions
“I became engaged to this boy right after graduating from high school in West Virginia. He joined the Navy soon after and became a ‘Hell Diver’ bomber pilot in the Pacific War with Japan. I thought, well, there are no boys left in town to dance with, so I joined the Navy too! After some time we arranged to have leave together, I told him we had been engaged long enough, if you don’t marry me, I’m going to marry a boy I’ve met in Florida! We were married a week later! Aubrey survived his combat missions, and we had forty-five great years together.”
U. S. Navy, Enlisted 1942
"It's natural to say it was the toughest time in my life. As an officer in the field, I didn't pull rank. We were all there together to do our jobs. Along the way to the mountains of Northern Luzon, someone came up with the idea that we could be helped by enlisting a group of Filipinos with a few Chinese who knew the area along the mountain trails. I was given the command of this crew which was known as a ‘guerrilla battalion.’ We had a few problems such as language, lack of training, and the will to fight. I had as my second in command, a hot-tempered Filipino sergeant. He always wanted to draw his 45 when his men didn't obey his orders. I had to persuade him that it was not a good idea."
U.S. Army, 1942-1945
32nd Division, 126 Infantry Regiment
"To fight on the front is a personal experience - the most extreme a human can go through. On the front lines, you have to develop insensitivity, because it is the only way to cope with the carnage around you, the only way you can live through the terror and shock of close combat, and still have the confidence to go on in spite of the loss of so many buddies."
U.S. Army, 1941-1945
2nd Infantry Division
"I joined the Navy on my eighteenth birthday. During combat you don't have time to think, no fear whatsoever. We had jobs to do, dodging torpedoes and Japanese suicide bombers. My ship went unhurt through the entire war on the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific waters."
"War is a tremendous experience, but most importantly I know that God looked after me, our ship, and our men.”
U.S. Navy, 1942-1945
Destroyer Escort, Radar man
“I was lucky. I went through the whole of World War II, the toughest battle being the ‘Battle of the Bulge.’ I joined prior to Pearl Harbor to take care of myself during the Depression. I wasn't a hero. My commanding officer protected me like a son as his radio man back at Head Quarters. You don't seem to worry about the danger until you’re in the battlefield. You soon realize it when on the front lines, seeing men getting killed and bombs exploding all around. I sat there and prayed.”
U.S. Army, 1941-1946
70th Division, "Trailblazers”
"I enlisted because I was proud of our country and wanted to fight for it. Being a Marine is an honor that stayed with me since I graduated Boot Camp. It will be with me until I die. One of the greatest moments of my life was watching the flag raising on Iwo Jima. I was there and saw it. To this day, I am proud to be a Marine and honored to have fought for freedom."
Matthew J. Fontana
U.S. Marines, 1942-1945
“I joined the Marine Corps, because at that time I thought it would piss off my father, but it turned out it was probably the best choice I ever made…My dad and I are like best friends now. In the U. S. Marine Corps Infantry units… really all you do, all the time, is prepare for combat operations. We did what we had to do- improvise, adapt and overcome! I was part of the second battle in Fallujah. It's eye opening - but I wouldn't change it for the world. I served with a lot of great people that I call brothers. It's helpful to attend the reunions, to go back and talk with the guys I was with over there. Personally I think they are the only ones that truly understand what we went through.”
U.S. Marine Corps, 2001-2005
“I was 18 and I had to do something to get out of the Kentucky mountains! I saw this huge poster of a Marine in the dress blue uniform, with the red stripe going down the side. So, I walked in the recruiter’s office and said - I want to join the Marine Corps! Boot camp at Parris Island was the most terrifying experience I've ever encountered. I felt my drill sergeant was doing everything she could to break me. At graduation, she said to me – ‘I knew you could make it; you just needed a little push!’ The Marine Corps gave me a sense of pride of who I became, ‘cause when you put the uniform on, it's just something that, kinda/sorta builds up in you. I think everything I do now relates to my time as a Marine.”
U.S. Marine Corps, 1968-1971
“In 1967 I was a high school senior at Douglas Freeman. That was the high point of the draft for Vietnam, and everyone who was not going to get a college deferment had the draft hanging over their head. I decided to join the Navy, I didn't want to be in the Infantry in Vietnam, nobody wanted to go to Vietnam. At that time, being young and dumb, I had no idea that the Navy also went to Vietnam… I was assigned to a Naval jet airplane squadron…Working around airplanes was a new and interesting experience for me. I became rated as a jet engine mechanic, and after my enlistment, with assistance from the GI Bill, I went to the Piedmont Aerospace Institute for the training required to pass the test for an Federal Aviation Administration "airframe and power plant" license. I went into corporate aviation right out of that school. I spent my career in maintaining aircraft here in Richmond.”
U.S. Navy, 1967-1971
“September 11th happened - I left my scholarship at J. Sargent Reynolds and joined the Army a month and a half later. It (9/11) was the only catalyst I needed to go…after boot camp I was ordered to serve in the 1st Cavalry…guerrilla combat is tough to fight - it's weird, because the organized Iraqi militia would coerce civilians to plant the explosive devices. So if we take out somebody planting one - they might not even be a member of the militia. These civilians have little choice, you can comply with the rebels and take care of your family, or you can be killed. Honestly, I regret leaving active duty. It's a good life, it's not for everyone, but it's awesome! Now I'm just getting my life back in order, training to be a chef. A restaurant kitchen is…like the Infantry, there are actual leaders in place, we have a big prep for the big nightly mission - it's pretty much what I'm used to.”
U.S. Army, 2001-2015
“I'm glad I am a Vietnam Veteran. I'm proud that I went and served my time there. I was one of the lucky ones; some of the people I went over there with did not make it home. I enlisted right after completing high school. With the war in Vietnam going strong at that time, I felt being drafted meant a good chance of being in the Infantry. I found out that if I volunteered, I could sign a contract with my recruiter that certified I would be trained on computers. To the Army's credit, they did exactly everything they said they would do. Toward the end of computer school, a few of us volunteered to go to Vietnam. They told us, don't worry, you’re going! The service changed my life an awful lot - before I went in, I couldn't see the value of education - the Army got me focused.”
U.S. Army, 1969-1971
“I joined the Army, actually, just to play baseball. I was 18 years old, right out of high school. The recruiter, who came to our school, told me I could play with the ‘All Army’ baseball team. But I didn't get told that it was only at select locations that you could actually try out. I guess it was up to me to ask the rest of the questions…I didn't ask all of them. The first time I went to Afghanistan - it was very, very scary. It was kinda of weird and exciting. You did not want to get out of the truck while traveling through their country. When you are deployed, you get to do more of what you’re trained for. I was discharged in 2013 because of a medical disability....I feel that because I was in the military, I should be doing more. I can't seem to find anything I can, or want to do, I'm undecided. All I know is the military.”
U.S. Army, 2003-2013
“I had it easy. I was aboard ship…during Operation Desert Storm, but there were no bullets coming at us! I didn't do anything like the guys who saved the world, in World War II, the conditions those guys were subjected to, then in the jungles of Vietnam, and now the kids sent to the Middle East, those are the guys that deserve the attention, that's the veterans I admire. When I got into the military, it took me about 3 days to figure out - if you stand around, and wait to be told what to do - there's about 100 people going to be happy to tell you what to do. But, if the floor is dirty and you pick up a broom and sweep it. Lord, they fall at your feet - he's a real ‘Go Getter’ - and that literally set the tone for my career. I don't think my efforts alone are enough to explain how good things turned out for me. I had good people looking out for me, people who saw more in me than I saw in myself.”
U.S. Navy, 1983-2006
“I enlisted in the Air Force right out of college in 1972. I was almost 23 years old, looking to find my way. My first assignment as a 2nd Lieutenant was to fly support for our bombers, to go take on the ‘Evil Empire’ of the Soviet Union. We had our plane ready to take off if we got the real ‘GO TO WAR’ message. We would get airborne to refuel the bombers, so they could get to their targets. My career spanned the pull-out in Vietnam, to the end of the Cold War chess match and Desert Storm. They say flying is hours, hours and hours of boredom, punctuated by a few seconds of terror! For me, nothing could top my military career. I flew for 16 of my 20 years of service, in some interesting moments of the Cold War. As veterans we have a shared sense of service and accomplishment. “
U.S. Air Force, 1972-1992
“I grew up in a typical middle class home. I think the Marine Corps opened my eyes to the diversity of people. It taught me we're all in this together. By the time I graduated from high school, I had a four year Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) scholarship to the University of Virginia. After graduation, I was commissioned as an active U. S. Marine Corps officer. I never really expected to stay in for 20 years. Being a Marine opened a lot of doors. I'm a people person, and I ended my military career as a Public Affairs Officer. Now I work for Great Aspirations Scholarship Program (GRASP), as an advisor at Franklin Military Academy and at Northstar Academy. I explain the financial aid process, but I'm also like a mentor, encouraging them to explore what their interests are, and to figure out what they might like to do.”
U.S. Marine Corps, 1981-2001
“I was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and again in 2009 - it was the wild, wild, west over there at that time. We were on constant alert…. From that experience, I remain hyper vigilant at all times - it's the complacency of thinking that nothing could ever happen that can cause people to become victims. There are three basic types of people in the world - the Sheep, the Wolves and the Sheep Herders. The Sheep are walking around - not paying attention to what's going on around them. The Wolves are looking for easy prey. The Sheep Herders are the protectors, who will go towards disaster to help people out. So, as protectors - the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association's mission…is to assist our wounded, elderly, or otherwise incapacitated Veterans - supporting them with counsel, and the camaraderie that they need and deserve. Last, but certainly not least, that our fallen comrades are honored as they should be, as they have given their Last Full Measure in ultimate sacrifice for our country.”
U.S. Marines, 2003-2015
“At 17, while still in high school, I signed up to join the U.S. Navy. As a result of my test scores, I qualified to train as a Nuclear Power Technician. We were 19 and 20 year olds, being trusted with the safe operation of a nuclear power plant. After completing two years of training, I was assigned aboard a nuclear powered aircraft carrier which was conducting air combat and bombing operations during the first Gulf War. My memories of that time are losing some pilots, and my first time going to combat General Quarters (battle stations). It was not a drill! Two enemy jets were reported incoming. This was the real deal! I and the Navy invested quite a lot of time in my training, however, finding a job in the civilian nuclear field was a struggle. Nuclear power plants are not as popular in civilian life. I now use my power systems skills to maintain high voltage electrical power transmission
U.S. Navy, 1991-2009
“I am a country girl. I enlisted in the US Army Reserve in 1972, and later went on active duty as a recruiter in 1977. My mission was to enlist qualified individuals, from across Virginia and DC, in the U S Army Reserve. Some of the kids we recruited had never used indoor plumbing, many of them were even afraid to get in the elevator at the hotel at the processing center. These were difficult times for recruiting because of the negative atmosphere of Viet Nam. However, I enjoyed what I did in the military. I talked to a lot of young people, and gave them an opportunity to have a nice life, educational opportunities and training. After I retired, I went back to school to follow another passion, which was helping people. I was fortunate enough to gain employment at a community based group home for at-risk-youth in foster care. After I earned my degree in Psychology, I became a case manager, then a program director; I taught my clients that they can’t let their past determine their future, they have to adapt and overcome!!! HOAH.”
U.S. Army and U.S. Army Reserve, 1972-2000
“I've always been a history buff. Most history, when you’re a boy revolves around military history. We are at ‘ground zero’ here [Richmond] for the Civil War. The history of the conflict, the politics, that's what always animated me - just everything here lives and breathes that conflict. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University with a marketing degree, I knew I wanted to serve in the military…I decided to join the U.S. Coast Guard and trained as a gunners mate, historically one of the original sea going rates. I volunteered for active duty in the Desert Storm operation. I was not going to miss my biggest opportunity to serve. We were assigned to port security in Saudi Arabia, testing and maintaining fire arms, as well as familiarizing ourselves with captured Soviet weapons. The people I served with are all stand up guys. I would do it all over again, if I had the chance.”
U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, 1988-1996
This exhibition was made possible by Dominion Resources, Inc.
Mark Mitchell, Photographer
Blair Black, Production Assistant
Laura G. Carr