By Michael Slenske
SMITH contributing editor Michael Slenske's last story was a "Back Home from Iraq" feature on MoveOn's VideoVet winner John Bruhns.
As far as Iraq war vets go, Marine reservist Todd Bowers might be the luckiest. During a routine patrol on the outskirts of Fallujah in the fall of 2004, his civil affairs unit was called to a firefight. There, amidst heavy fighting with insurgents, they spotted three civilians caught in the crossfire. Bowers’ unit attempted to rescue them, but the skirmish was too intense. “There was some gunshots kicking up around me, I saw where they were coming from, so I dropped to my knee, fired back a couple times, then BOOM!,” recalls Bowers. “A bullet literally missed my head by an eighth of an inch. It hit the scope [an advanced combat optical gunsight, or ACOG, which Bowers' father bought for him with his own money]. I’ve still got a bunch of chunks of metal in the left side of my face.” Although he had blood pouring from his head, Bowers refused to be medivaced from the site without the civilians. “I threw them in the back of a Humvee,” he says. “Then jumped in the driver’s seat with my eye all bandaged up and drove over to Bravo Surgical to get them treated.”
Amazing? Sure. But Bowers returned home with much more than a crazy souvenir and a wild story. Knowing he’d face these kinds of indescribable experiences in Iraq, before deploying he planned to mirror a project his uncle Kendall undertook as an Army surgeon in Vietnam. When Kendall wasn’t saving lives, he was taking photos—graphic snapshots of wounded soldiers and close-call incidents in the MASH—that he later turned into a slideshow, dubbed Vietnam Graffiti. To offer context to the slides for the vets who viewed them back home, Bowers’ uncle added quotes he’d heard during his tour. “He felt the time you hear the most honesty from people is when they do graffiti on bathroom walls or port-o-johns and they write it anonymously,” says Bowers. “When I took a picture I knew that moment would be the one time I would hear what people really felt.” During his two tours Bowers snapped some 1,400 photos. His images offer an intimate view of the war: from immediate pics of Jessica Lynch’s convoy after it was attacked to ironic shots of the Fallujah Career Retention Center to panoramas of the Straits of Gibraltor sailing to Kuwait for the initial invasion.
“We deployed so quickly I was using little disposables at first. They actually worked pretty well. My favorite pictures are from the Ziggurat of Ur, the birthplace of Abraham. You can tell someone what it’s like on top of it, but unless you can actually show them it’s hard to imagine,” says Bowers. “I even got pictures of when they delivered Thighmasters [to Fallujah]. We were getting humanitarian aid sent and we got in a bunch of Thighmasters—official, Made in Taiwan, Suzanne Somers Thighmasters.”
Two months after his second deployment, he made his own slideshow while he was living in Los Angeles, “sofa-surfing” at friends’ homes. Although he showed his project, Iraqi Graffiti, to a dozen or so people, and later to a couple Washington, D.C. art galleries, Bowers wasn’t comfortable taking the project public. “I got the vibe from people where they were like, ‘Oh this is so awful, the war is so wrong’ and I just didn’t want to get into that debate at all,” notes Bowers, who says the salve of time has helped him get comfortable with letting people into his world. “Things are not going well in Iraq. Everybody knows that. But all we see are the guns, bombs, and explosions. It’s hard to get a feel for what the dynamic is—where one second you’re playing soccer with kids and the next second your vehicle is blown up. I want someone to be able to watch this and say, ‘Okay, I have a much better understanding of what it’s like to be in Iraq now.’ No politics, just being able to understand what soldiers and Marines experience when they come home.”