Capturing courage: Honor Portraits thanks veterans by taking their pictures
South Florida Sun Sentinel November 11, 2023
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — For some military veterans, it’s hard to smile for the camera. They’ve been through so much.
But when Honor Portraits, a Delray Beach, Fla.-based nonprofit, offers to take their picture, they are allowed to put on whatever face they like. During a recent pre-Veterans Day portrait session at a retirement community in Lantana, some allowed their eyes to get teary; others displayed small grins of nostalgia and pride. Still others gazed inward, looking back on the formative experiences of war and how they made it through.
All said they were grateful to be recognized, having endured an assortment of reactions from family and society upon their return and in the years that followed.
Honor Portraits has shot photographs of more than 500 South Florida veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan over the past seven years. The group sets up in central locations, such as recreation rooms of apartment complexes or nursing homes, and brings along its equipment, including lights, backdrop and an American flag.
Volunteers interview the participants in detail about their basic training, locations during service, duties, and any medals and ribbons they were awarded. Afterward, the organization delivers an 8-by-10-inch framed portrait to each veteran at no cost, as well as digital copies for family reprints.
The portrait sessions revive memories long buried. Gus Faustini, 80, remembers young men spitting at him when he got off the plane from Vietnam, where he rappelled into the jungle from Army helicopters. His voice shook as he recalled the moment.
“People were not supportive when I got back,” said Faustini, a Delray Beach resident who served in the 101st Airborne and is being treated for lymphoma he believes he contracted from exposure to Agent Orange, an herbicide used by the military to clear foliage during the Vietnam War.
He thinks American society has evolved and now respects the work of the Armed Forces. And volunteers who took his portrait last week, just in time for Veterans Day, affirmed for him this unfolding appreciation.
Flora Zolin of Delray Beach co-created Honor Portraits in 2016 after conferring with a fellow photographer about productive uses of their talents in retirement. Besides finding veterans by reaching out to senior communities, Zolin said she approaches men and women who are wearing uniforms or some other indication of their service, such as a U.S. Army cap.
“I’m not shy,” she said. “I’ll chase after someone in a parking lot if I see them wearing a hat.”
The organization accepts nominations but typically tries to gather a group of 15 to 20 vets in one location for efficiency.
Zolin, 83, a grandmother of 11 and great-grandmother of six, said she hopes to expand the project to include law enforcement and first responders.
Kerry Kachejian of Delray Beach, a West Point graduate who served in Iraq, arrived for his portrait session wearing three medals he was awarded during his service: Legion of Merit, Bronze Star and Meritorious Service. He said he takes them out rarely, only on veteran-related occasions, and feels lucky to have been honored at several events since his retirement in 2012.
“I have no regrets,” said Kachejian, 63, author of the book “SUVs Suck In Combat: The Rebuilding of Iraq During A Raging Insurgency.” “When I came back from Iraq, people came to the airport with flags and said, ‘You’re worth it.’ TV and media had brought combat into their living rooms.”
He said he was deeply moved by the work of Honor Portraits for emphasizing the dignity and valor of America’s retired soldiers.
“They are getting treated like national treasures, and they are,” he said.
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