It was November 2011, I had been sent to cover a Camp Pendleton memorial ceremony, on a rare, drizzly fall day, where members of the First Battalion Fifth Marines and their families reflected on an awful deployment, a six-month stay in a place called Sangin, Afghanistan where 200 men returned injured and 17 didn't make it home. Cody Elliott in his wheelchair, with a face scarred from an explosion and missing a leg, symbolized that deployment.
In June of that year, while on patrol, fellow Marine, Lance Cpl. Joshua B. McDaniels, triggered an enemy explosive device near him. Elliott instinctively ran to help and in the process stepped on a secondary device which ripped away one of his legs and a finger, and blasted his face with shrapnel.
Five months later, at this memorial, after the obligatory reading of names and placement of flowers, I walked with the Marines and their families and came upon Elliott, who was determined to get close to all 17 battlefield crosses. He rolled his wheelchair to one in the middle and turned, and held a pair of ID tags. He had come to McDaniels' cross.
McDaniels didn't survive his wounds that day in Sangin, and Elliott, though badly wounded, did. I could feel the emotion from the sidelines. Something force me to spring from the safety of a discreet position and walk behind the cross, out in front of Elliott, determined to make a picture that might connect with our readers and bring the war home, ten years after 9/11. Was I there to record the event as impartially as a journalist can? yes. Was I also there to thrust the sacrifices of our young men and women in people's faces?
Damn straight I was.
As photographers it's a rare moment to shift narratives, or start the conversation. Unless we can show emotion, or move people.
After I took the picture, I kneeled to speak to Elliott, got all the facts and then guided our reporter to get a quote from him too, and she gladly included him in her story. That photo made the front page of The San Diego Union-Tribune the next day and I received kudos from many in the newsroom. That was also the last time I spoke to Cody Elliott. Until recently.
The power of the photo spoke to me about a world I know nothing about and I felt the need to connect with him so long after that day. I found him through Facebook, we chatted, he remembered the moment when I took the picture, thanked me, and then mentioned he was coming out to California from his home now in Brazil, sometime in 2022. This past week, he and many other Marines from the First Battalion Fifth Marines came back to Camp Pendleton once again to honor their fallen with a hike up what is known as "First Sgts. Hill" on base. This is an infamous hill that should have switchbacks, but doesn't, should have a water station, but doesn't and should be rated strenuous for anyone attempting it. I asked if I could hike too, even though I was offered a ride to the top in a vehicle. The hike was being documented for a film on the unit and its deployment, and I even got interest from my old employer, the Union-Tribune, who sent a reporter who worked it into another prominent front-page story. The hike wasn't easy for someone with both legs. Cody, with two comrades on either side ready to catch him, completed the trip with his artificial leg. At the top of the hill many crosses have been erected to the fallen, including many for Cody's unit's men including McDaniels and others killed that same week. Brigadier General Thomas Savage, who, at the time of their deployment, was a Lt. Colonel, came all the way from his post in Africa to be with his men and he did the hike as well. The last time, I was sad for this country and its Marines. This time it was the reverse. I was reminded me of the brotherhood they live and die for, one where sacrifice is never an afterthought.
Cody is now happily married, living in another country, with a child and continuing to make a life for which he is very grateful. He gave me a hug and posed for a selfie and thanked me for joining him on the hike. He then paid me the biggest compliment he didn't even realize he had given.
He called me "brother."
Here is the story in the San Diego Union-Tribune: