In Djibouti, Africa, Technical Air Force Sgt. Michael Adair worked 16 hours a day on the USS Bataan – one of the first assault ships commissioned after the 9/11 terrorist attacks – refueling aircraft for Marines chasing al-Qaeda .
Today, close to a decade later, he needs the support of a cane to walk, his vocabulary still includes some of the rough language he learned in the military, and at times, he battles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
However, thanks to the Augusta Veteran Curation Program, a national effort founded to give former members of the military marketable job skills and work experience through the rehabilitation and preservation of Army-owned artifacts, Adair is on the brink of a new career in photography.
As part of a project the program’s 2013 class completed in September at graduation, Adair’s story is one of seven shared in a new exhibit he and six peers designed and constructed at the Augusta Museum of History to share the challenges they faced while deployed overseas and at home transitioning into civilian life.
The display, contained in two cases and open to the public through March, consists of military coins, cataloged photographs and archeological items they brought back from war, or cleaned, documented and indexed for the Army Corps of Engineer.
“With PTSD, I seldom left the house when I returned home – I became a shut-in,” said Adair, who next spring hopes to attend Augusta Technical College and from there get his undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia. “This program gave me a chance to work with other veterans and once again develop the sense of belonging and camaraderie I grew to love overseas.”
Adair contributed empty shell casings from a 20mm, 40mm and 105mm assault rifle to the exhibit, as well as spent ammunition from a 7.62 mm helicopter chain gun used to rescue Navy SEALS who had become pinned in a valley of former Yugoslavia.
The ammunition lies next to a newspaper clipping retired Army Sgt. Laura Levering wrote in honor of a fallen soldier who died in Iraq when a Humvee ran over explosives.
Below each is a collection of combat badges, one of which retired Army mechanic Staff Sgt. Mike Mullin received from the 4th Infantry Division for keeping tanks, fighting vehicles and avenger systems in working order in Iraq from 2003 to 2004.
“I have never produced anything like this,” Mullin said of the exhibit, in the making since June. “It was a unique opportunity and actually a pretty awesome experience that I do think I will get a chance to be a part of again.”
Mullin said early on his class didn’t know how to examine artifacts and build their belongings and findings into a compelling display, but they learned quickly and relied on each other for motivation and creativity.
The group started from scratch, he said, by sprawling artifacts onto a large table and sorting each item into categories. From there, Adair photographed the collections; Mullin staged and mounted exhibit photos and display text; and Levering, a former Army public affairs officer who covered Iraqi police training efforts, conducted interviews and wrote the copy for each participant’s story.
“Being able to share these stories fills you with a whole new sense of pride, because when you talk to people who have not been deployed, they do not really understand or grasp what you tell them,” Levering said of the exhibit. “This does.”
Beyond preserving history, the veteran exhibit’s curators said their display highlights that the employment gap cannot be explained by a simple factor like lack of a college degree.
Managers, few of whom have military experience themselves, may fear the effects of combat or losing reservists to another deployment, Adair said. They may have difficulty understanding how military accomplishments translate to the civilian world.
Some veterans’ work histories, Mullin said, may consist entirely of military service, forcing them to often need to learn basics like what to wear to a job interview or how to build a resume.
“The program gives you something to look forward to when applying for jobs,” Mullin said. “It filled a void for me by giving me a better understanding of how to work in the civilian environment, instead of dealing exclusively with my knowledge of structured military background.”
While Levering has agreed to a six-month commitment with Mercy Ministries to help the area’s homeless population, the three veterans future for the time being are uncertain.
Levering said she plans to return to school and possibly pursue a degree in sociology or journalism. Mullin said he has put in an application at a Waynesboro wire cabling company and is awaiting good news.
Adair, whose wife remains in school, said the couple continues to save money.
However, Adair said his love for photography remains intact.
“I tend to stay away from the view of the cameras, but I liked to work with my hands and photography really clicked with me,” said Adair, drawn by the idea of his photo forever being etched in history. “No pun intended.”