By VOICE teen writers Mahdiyah Al-askari, Raeshawn Wall and Ana Aguilar
Imagine scenes of war.
Headless bodies, limbs blown off and fumes from burnt flesh.
It’s not a first-person shooter video game, but grisly words from a combat photographer.
“You know death is around the corner because you can smell it,” said Jerry Rogers, a 44-year-old former combat photographer for the army.
The E-5 sergeant has served in the military most of his life — since 1987 – and lives in the Durham.
A native of Wilson, North Carolina, Rogers served in the National Guard and Army, joining for the first time in high school. His motivation came from his uncle, Donnell Rogers, also a sergeant, who would take him to Fort Bragg every summer.
Beginning with a Photo Finish
Rogers didn’t plan to enter the military. An athlete at heart, he wanted to be an Olympian. The captain of the Ralph L. Fike High School football and track teams, Rogers still holds school records in the 200m dash and 4×1 relay.
The Olympics quickly faded after pulling a hamstring at the 1986 North Carolina State championship.
He lost the 200m finals that day by a photo finish.
With his dreams of joining the Olympics dashed, after high school, he decided to become an Army infantryman. There he continued to run track at the military base at Fort Carson, Colorado. He also ran for the V Corps in Europe.
While in the military, Rogers still had big dreams.
“I wanted to become a captain or major,” he said.
Army life kept Rogers grounded but he had trouble, at times, interacting with others. Later that year, he had a traumatic experience with a fellow soldier.
At the base on Thanksgiving night 1987, an intoxicated comrade assaulted him. After a struggle, the soldier stabbed Rogers.
His wounds included a six-inch gash in his abdomen resulting in a scar he carries today.
“I looked down and I was holding my guts in my hand,” said Rogers. “They say I died in Colorado that night but they brought me back.”
Rogers now looks at the situation like this: “What happens will happen.”
Once he was well enough to enter the field again, Rogers was sent to a station in Germany in 1988.
He couldn’t speak German but called it an “eye-opener.”
Rogers said soldiers often have issues dealing with trauma and injuries. Unless someone has been through it, they would not understand, he said.
Ever since his attack, he has trust issues.
After the incident, Rogers battled PTSD, depression and anxiety, which got in the way of duties. After several mishaps, he eventually received a general discharge and was forced to leave the ranks – for a while.
By the mid-late 90’s, his life was in transition. He spent time homeless and worked temporary jobs. For a while, he was at North Carolina State University as a temporary accounting clerk and a part-time student studying accounting.
But in 1999, he felt the military calling his name. After his general discharge, he decided to “correct wrongs” and looked for a way back in.
Jumping into the Unexpected
By 2002, Rogers was working as a visual model-scouting agent in the Atlanta metro area.
There he met a sergeant major’s daughter who asked if he was interested in combat photography.
“Do I shoot with one hand and take pictures with the other?” he asked her.
But after a recruiting video, Rogers changed his mind.
He knew the military’s infantry side — “kicking in doors and jumping off tanks”– but he never experienced the photographic side.
Before he knew it, he was a soldier for the 982nd Combat Camera Airborne Company, an army reserves unit in East Point, GA.
“They wanted me to go to airborne school but I declined,” he said. “I enjoyed taking photos of soldiers jumping out of C-130s and other military aircrafts.”
Rogers would be so intent in his work that he would hang out of the doorway edge taking pictures and would have to be physically pulled back into the aircraft by safety personnel.
By 2003 he was in Iraq.
On his first day, he got his gear off the plane and went to his assigned Humvee. It broke down.
So Rogers pulled out his two weapons, took them off safety and locked and loaded.
It was a dangerous point during the war.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said.
In addition to carrying weapons like his 9mm pistol, and an assault rifle, Rogers also carried 100 pounds of gear and his camera equipment.
The next day, Rogers was on his first humanitarian mission.
According to the U.S. Department of Defense, as of the end of 2011, when the U.S. officially ended the war in Iraq, more than 1.5 million Americans served in the country. Numbers from the Center for American Progress, a nonpartisan educational institute, as of Spring 2013, lists 4,484 U.S. deaths in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Some 32,000-service members have been injured.
Rogers said when he was in the country; perhaps 30-40 other soldiers were combat photographers.
He took photos of daily life in the poorest parts of Iraq. There were streets full of trash, children without shoes, and men selling gas along the roadside.
One memorable photo he has is of a group of villagers in Sadr City, the location of several urban battles.
“The villagers were all sitting on the ground eating,” said Rogers. “They asked would I join them, even though they didn’t have much.”
Images like these helped to teach him.
Rogers said he used to be uptight about “stuff.” Seeing Iraqi life allowed him to reflect on his own.
He said Americans are fortunate.
“I used to take food for granted and wasted it,” said Rogers. “I took water and taking baths for granted.”
“I learned not to do that,” he said. “Taking a bath is a god send– it’s a luxury.”
Another memorable photo of Rogers’s is that of a five-year-old boy and his little sister selling items in the streets. As they moved down the road towards him, he got the shot.
In 2004, Rogers finished his tour and came back to the states and to his daughters Cameron, and Morgan.
He successfully applied to have his 1990 general discharge changed to an honorable discharge. In 2008, the Veterans Administration (VA) finally approved some of his military benefits; he received a disability percentage for posttraumatic stress disorder and currently has a pending claim for other injuries he continues to struggle with.
He also received his G.I. Bill benefits that were unavailable under a general discharge. With them, he enrolled at N.C. Central University where he studied business administration and also worked as a photo editor for the student newspaper, the Campus Echo.
Since graduating last year, life for Rogers is less dangerous than the war zone. He enrolled in real-estate school, took the exam and passed. He also currently works as a sales consultant for a car dealership.
Rogers still has dreams.
He wants to show disadvantaged teens the world outside of Durham in order to “open their eyes.”
It’s why he shares his story.
As a former combat photographer, youth interested in joining the military so they can “shoot people” is concerning.
He wants them to know that what they see in video games isn’t 100 percent reality.
“It’s not Call of Duty,” said Rogers. “If they want to see real war, show them Arlington Cemetery or the VA hospitals around the world.”
To see the faces of North Carolina and other soldiers that fell in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, visit this site from the Washington Post.