The power of photography is no mystery to 25-year-old Mike MacDonald, a veteran who served in the military from 2008-13, including a year (2009) in Iraq. He's trained to use lethal weapons, but he's also learning how to capture honest moments with a camera. These works are part of an ongoing project, called A Warrior's Reintegration, detailing the struggles of those who serve return home to.
As part of the military police he witnessed much hardship, including the suicide of a member of his squad. He conducted over 250 missions during his time in Iraq, including convoy security and Quick Reaction Force, and was on guard duty for a short stint. When he returned home, he worked as law enforcement on at least five different military installations or bases.
“I got to see the brunt of, you know, coming home: PTSD, responding to domestics, sexual assaults, rapes, murders,” he says. "All the stuff you see as a regular cop you'd pick up on base, too.”
He got out after his five-year contract was up, but in no way was he free. He's spent the last two years on medication, mostly for physical pain, but also for anxiety and depression. He had broken his right ankle during voluntary training, just days before his deployment to Iraq, and tore the ligaments in his left ankle a few years later when he was training soldiers for deployment to Afghanistan. His anxiety and depression were so bad that it took him six months to even step foot in the door of a VA. Even then, he was hesitant to visit, because of the VA's less than satisfactory system. So, he self-medicated.
“The government was not prepared to deal with us when we got home,” he says. “It's a system put in place that doesn't work.”
He had trouble finding support. He realized that he had walked away from a very special family of soldiers that had been there with him every day for five years, and really were the only ones who knew what he was going through. He eventually found the veteran support groups Dysfunctional Veteran, 22 Until None, and Operation: 23 to Zero, whose mission is to decrease the rate of veteran and military suicides.
“You're starting all over again from scratch,” he says. “You've got all of these skills that you acquired through the military. Then you get out and they're fucking useless, and your experiences are pretty much useless. Your friends are gone. You're alienated from your family, on top of whatever PTA or PTSD issues you might be having. And you find yourself in a fucking all-out grapple to fight for disability with the VA. It's a lot of shit to come home to.”
He decided to enroll at Inver Hills Community College for EMS and first-responder training. As odd as it may seem, he was told he needed an art credit, so he picked up a digital photography class.
“I've always been drawn to it,” he says. “Both my parents did photography in college, so I believe it's a genetic thing.”
He started with a simple point-and-shoot camera, and eventually graduated to a Canon Alpha 3000. For a final project, the class was told they could do whatever they wanted. MacDonald didn't have to think twice, and ended up with 12 photographs conveying his struggles.
The response to the ever-expanding collection of photographs has been so positive that he has turned to social media to release some of the images. After a few went viral, he decided to keep promoting the project. It's not just veterans he's getting positive responses from.
“[That's] because it's so emotionally involved,” he says. “And the idea behind it is to show people how much hell veterans are going through, even though they're home.”
The photographs are deeply personal, yet represent issues many soldiers face when they return home and reintegrate back into civilian society. They may no longer be seeking cover from bullets and shrapnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, but there are many battles they have to face here as well, including managing health benefits, finding employment, and locating resources to deal with mental-health issues.
Despite being surrounded by loved ones, many feel alone in those battles. MacDonald, who currently lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, wants use the project to assure those returning home that they're not alone, and hopefully save some lives. To raise awareness, he's been going around the country showing his work. To ensure he can continue his mission, his photography is for sale, with proceeds going back into the project.
“[Relating to] a photo can help someone put a gun down and out of somebody's mouth,” he says. “That's the way I look at it. If I can help that way, then I wanna do it.”
For more info on the project, and to view more images, visit. www.awarriorsreintegration.com.