Posted: 10/29/2005 2:21:15 PM EST
[Last Edit: 10/29/2005 2:21:47 PM EST by Da_Bunny]
OLYMPIA, Wash. - Army Sgt. Walt Gaya spent his time in Iraq peering - through the scope of his sniper rifle and through the lens of his camera, snapping black-and-white pictures of his unit and of life in the turbulent city of Mosul. Becoming a professional photographer was his dream. Losing his sight was his nightmare, which he sometimes mentioned in long-distance phone calls to his wife, Jessica, in Washington.
Then on a routine patrol last July in Mosul, with his trusty Leica wedged among the gear in his backpack, a roadside bomb ripped open the hull of Gaya's Stryker combat vehicle, wounding all nine men inside.
Gaya felt his leg throbbing as he helped the others escape the 19-ton vehicle. Shrapnel had torn through the leg and shredded a knee ligament.
Then he felt a sharp pain in his left eye. His vision began to blur.
While attention has focused on the more than 2,000 American soldiers who have died in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003, another 16,000 have been wounded, nearly half so severely they didn't return to duty. Their injuries have altered their lives, in some cases leaving hopes and plans in tatters - or futures uncertain like Gaya's.
Evacuated back to a U.S. base in Germany and then to the United States, Gaya had to leave behind his camera, still tucked in a backpack inside the crippled vehicle on a Mosul street.
In the first moments after the explosion, Gaya was just grateful to be alive. He had survived an earlier roadside bombing with burns on his lower back and some hearing loss.
But then, with each painful blink as he helped set up a security perimeter around his disabled vehicle, his mind raced with fears that the blurred vision would never clear.
Gaya, 30, had pursued his passion for photography in Iraq not only to relax but also to help document life in a country in turmoil.
"It meant so much to me. Photography was one of the other things that I had besides doing my job over there," Gaya said as his two children, Corina, 4, and Julian, 2, romped around their home. "Some people don't ever find what they want to do. But for me everything is different when I grab that camera."
On one earlier mission, a roadside bomb had exploded near his vehicle, wounding an Iraqi child. Gaya snapped a photo of a soldier cradling the child, and trying to hush away his tears.
"He was comforting him, just like my mom would when I was a kid," said Gaya.
Other photos show Gaya's buddies on guard, inside buildings with walls pocked by mortar rounds, rifles at the ready. In one shot, a helicopter hovers above a soldier keeping watch on a rooftop, providing security as units on the ground search the neighborhood.
"I thought it was an interesting photo just because of the vast emptiness of the background. And as the bird was flying by it almost looks like an insect that could sting you at any moment if you do the wrong thing," he said, laughing quietly at the memory.
Gaya, dark-eyed and gravel-voiced, has a photographic style that captures the stark loneliness of war, the endless hours of watching and waiting for something to happen.
"I think combat should be photographed in black and white and it should be grainy because that's the way I saw it," he said. It's a vision shared by his fellow soldiers.
"I showed one of these photographs to my friend and he looked at it and he said, 'You know, when I look at these photographs that's pretty much how I remember Iraq - black and white and grainy. I don't remember the golden sunsets or any of the brown from the sand.'"
Gaya is proud of his unit - the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment based at Fort Lewis - and of its success in curbing insurgent attacks in western Mosul, the Sunni Arab part of the city where militants were most active. He served about eight months in Iraq.
But it came at a high price. Several of his friends were killed, including Sgt. Benjamin Morton of Wright, Kan., who shared his love for photography.
"I'm proud to have served with the unit," Gaya said. "We helped that city a lot."
After the explosion, doctors stitched up Gaya's left eye, which had been pierced by a bomb fragment. He was fortunate, they told him, that his eye had not lost all its internal fluid, which likely would have led to its permanent collapse.
But the vision remains impaired - he can only make out shapes and light and billboard-size letters, he said. At this point, Gaya is considering a cornea transplant.
The wound has turned his life upside down.
When Gaya returned to Fort Lewis, he joined other injured soldiers assigned to odd jobs around the base. With his impaired vision, his days as a sniper were over.
Some days he would help move furniture around; other times he would prepare barracks for the return of the battalion.
The attack had also upturned other parts of his life. The Argentina-born immigrant, who moved to the United States as a child, was injured just eight days before he was to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen in a ceremony in Iraq.
Now, he's in a bureaucratic black hole: Federal immigration officials wouldn't renew his permanent resident card or tell him when he could reschedule the swearing-in ceremony. No one at the local U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office could tell him what to do next to get his citizenship papers, or even how to renew his immigration documents.
One day, as he was moving furniture at Fort Lewis, he found a copy of an old newspaper with a photograph of soldiers at the citizenship ceremony in Iraq that he had missed.
He tossed it aside and kept working.
After several surgeries and countless doctor's visits, the vision in Gaya's left eye still is blurry and distorted, as if he's opening his eyes underwater.
"Now that I have all this scar tissue built up, it's very difficult to see because the light is being refracted," he said.
But his right eye is uninjured, and Gaya believes he can still shoot pictures despite a loss of peripheral vision.
"I don't think it hindered my passion for photography one bit," he said. "I've always been not much of a quitter kind of guy. Did it wear on me? It did at first a little bit. But I primarily use my right eye, so by no means is it going to slow me down at all - ever."
Lt. Col. Erik Kurilla, Gaya's commanding officer who also returned to Fort Lewis after being wounded in Mosul, called Gaya a "quiet professional. He's the type of soldier that every commander wished he had a hundred of."
Gaya says he won't let his injury define his life. On his lunch breaks at Fort Lewis, he uses a camera he bought from a pawn shop, venturing into the morning mist to snap shots of soldiers training.
His old Leica was retrieved from the blast site in Iraq, but he chuckles when he thinks of its battered condition. He still takes black and white shots, but now he sometimes uses color film to take pictures of his children.
Gaya's enlistment is up next spring, and he's busy compiling a portfolio of his photographic work. He hopes news agencies or magazines will look past the dark patch he wears over his left eye and hire him as a photographer.
"I feel like I'm going to have to work extra hard to demonstrate that it's not going to be a problem," he said. "I never even considered stopping. It's not me to just quit."
Best wishes to this soldier!!
Micheal Yon writes a little about Walt - Angels Among Us
ETA: RyJones may remember him from Boomershoot 2004, where Walt was one of the instructors.
So something that was promised to be almost automatic, mostly after this guy almost gave his life for the country, is now lost amidst bureaucratic idiots? It's quite unfair, to say the least.
My salutes to our soldiers, marines, sailors, coast guards and ALL serivce member in the theater.
Fair winds and following seas.
God Bless them...
Wonder if we could get Murray or Cantwell to do anything for him.
Heck, I would like to do something for him.
If there is one thing Murray is good at it is sticking up for Vet's. This I can't fault her for even if she does use it as cannon fodder to beat up on the administration.
Of course I do. I read this story with a heavy heart.
He was also part of the Walter and Adam fund from Kim duToit's website.
Of course, Plum was killed earlier this year.