By Cecilia LaFrance
“Is that a photograph, or a painting and a photograph?” A woman asks as she pauses in her tour of art at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1 to take a closer look at a colorful print on the wall. The image’s original depth and contrast captured by the photographer are further accentuated with textured surfaces and shadows of their own.
Pleased to provide a response, Charles Jamison invites engagement about his work. “It depends on what you see.” For the next few minutes, the exchange between artist and admirer spans discussion of the scene locations to the appreciation of the printing technology that spurred her original interest. Jamison’s hands animate his words in front of him, his smile bounces out with his deep voice, and his brown eyes stay trained on the person listening.
Photography is an open door topic for this friendly veteran, and Jamison’s face fills with expression while he tells a story behind a shot. Details from the trips he took to get the scenes add a layer of personal connection to the art; he points out historical changes of a Biloxi, MS pier, the intentional reflection in the Echo Lake composure, and the neighborhood of the Savannah, GA print’s unique architecture.
Not every topic comes as easily, though. Serving as a captain in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, many of Jamison’s experiences are not pleasant topics for reminiscing. But, in a much graver voice, heavy with protective pauses, Jamison shares and explains why he no longer avoids facing the difficulties of his past. Trying to evade the anger, guilt, and mistrust boiling within him only further blocked him. “I had to go forward and seek the help I needed to live again.”
Looking back, Jamison can connect the result of a determined young man, whose mother called a Pit Bull, who was raised in a culture that valued commitment. “I was raised in a time where if you start something you finish it.” Growing up in Southeast Arkansas during the Civil Rights movement, a career in the military held promise. “Education was the key to keeping out of the fields and the factories,” Jamison says. And, his parents pointed him to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, an African-American college recently integrated in the early 1970s. There, Jamison says he was offered the choice to enlist after he got in some trouble. “I was given a second chance,” he says, and a lesson in growing up.
Serving in the Air Force from 1974-1977, Jamison exited with a new plan. “I didn’t understand rank the first time. Airman doesn’t mean nothing.” He set his sights on being an officer, which he says was highly influenced by having two older brothers with the achievement. He joined the Tulsa Air National Guard in 1981 and pursued officer training school. While an active political movement pushed to get more blacks in the military, Jamison found his officer pursuit a challenge. “I wasn’t white and nobody knew me.” But, he didn’t back down. Eventually, Jamison’s ambition earned him officer details, including his goal of Buckley AFB, which coincided smoothly with a transfer and relocation to Aurora.
Jamison’s conflict started with the call for active duty in 1990. “I was mad as hell. I knew the war plan and there’s no way in hell my team should have been mobilize before the other team.” But, they deployed, and Jamison wouldn’t be released until two years after Desert Storm concluded. “I was dumped into it and learned fast,” he says. “This career field is a kiss of death to your career if you screw it up.” Again, his determination and commitment fueled his service. There’s pride in doing his job well, especially one bearing great responsibility.
As a captain of a team specializing in recovery of mass casualties, Jamison hesitates to elaborate further on his role. Instead, he references events where he and his team reported: Spirit 03, an AC-130 gunship shot down in the Persian Gulf with its 14-person crew; a 1992 C-130B crash resulting in the deaths of all five crew members and eleven civilians at a restaurant and hotel in Evansville, IN; and Jamison’s last case, a midair collision of two F-16s out of Selfridge Naval Station in 1992, where one of the two pilots died. The deaths were violent in nature, and recovery of remains requires attention to detail and accountability. There was no room for mistakes, Jamison said.
“Everybody has their breaking point,” Jamison’s admission is free of self-judgment. It has to be. After active duty, Jamison self-medicated, turning to alcohol to quiet the anger and guilt. His anger was aimed at the military for not adequately preparing him to deal with the intense trauma and grief he encountered with others. Guilt resulted from “things I’ve been involved in and I’m still here.” Furthermore, Jamison regrets life he missed, times he could have spent with his mother and sister. “You don’t get the past back.” The feelings compiled and became a “stuck point.”
In 2010, Jamison was hospitalized for depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse. As a result, the therapy he received allowed him to heal destructive thinking and free himself to live beyond the events in his past. Ironically, with the advice of his therapist, he returned to something from his past he hadn’t buried to awaken purpose again: photography.
An Open Lens
An early moment of pride for Jamison was winning a photography award in 8th grade. In high school, he served on the yearbook and journalism staff, capturing moments in photos. Now, with camera in hand, he makes a point to travel, sometimes months on end in an RV, to take risks and be vulnerable, “to know what I can and can’t do.” His hands spread in front of him. “It’s okay to say no.”
The recreation therapy is working. “My masking my pain through alcohol lowered,” he says. He spreads his arms open toward his photographs. “These are recovery images.” He likens the opening of the camera’s aperture to his own widening lens to see life.
“I can’t go anywhere else except forward.” Jamison admits he still has trouble, but is better equipped now. “When you know your anniversaries and what triggers you, it’s easier to manage.” Therapy continues, and Jamison plans events to keep active. He takes advantage of the VA’s Golden Age Games, held at a different location each year and affording a chance to travel. Though, after pulling two hamstrings last year in track and field, Jamison is sticking to hand-eye coordination sports this year in Alaska.
Jamison wants to get a portfolio online, eventually. In the interim, two of his landscapes may be viewed at the Rocky Mountain Regional VA Medical Center’s Veterans Art Gallery in Aurora.