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In a Snap, Soldier's Gift Is Blurred by Iraq

When a roadside bomb impaired the vision of Sgt. Walt Gaya, his hopes for a future as a photographer were compromised.

November 06, 2005|Antonio Castaneda | Associated Press Writer

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Army Sgt. Walt Gaya spent his time in Iraq peering -- through the scope of his sniper rifle and through the lens of his camera, snapping black-and-white pictures of his unit and of life in the turbulent city of Mosul.

Becoming a professional photographer was his dream. Losing his sight was his nightmare, which he sometimes mentioned in long-distance phone calls to his wife, Jessica, in Washington.

In July, he went on routine patrol in Mosul, his trusty Leica wedged among the gear in his backpack. A roadside bomb ripped open the hull of Gaya's Stryker combat vehicle, wounding all nine men inside.

Gaya felt his leg throbbing as he helped the others escape the 19-ton vehicle. Shrapnel had torn through the leg and shredded a knee ligament.

Then he felt a sharp pain in his left eye. His vision began to blur.

Although attention has focused on the more than 2,000 American soldiers who have died in Iraq since the U.S. invasion in March 2003, 16,000 more have been wounded, nearly half so severely they didn't return to duty. Their injuries have altered their lives, in some cases leaving hopes and plans in tatters -- or futures uncertain like Gaya's.

In the first moments after the explosion, Gaya was just grateful to be alive. He had survived an earlier roadside bombing with burns on his lower back and some hearing loss.

But then, with each painful blink as he helped set up a security perimeter around his disabled vehicle, his mind raced with fears that the blurred vision would never clear.

Gaya, 30, had pursued his passion for photography in Iraq not only to relax but to help document life in a country in turmoil.

"It meant so much to me. Photography was one of the other things that I had besides doing my job over there," Gaya said as his two children, Corina, 4, and Julian, 2, romped around their home. "Some people don't ever find what they want to do. But for me everything is different when I grab that camera."

On one earlier mission, a roadside bomb had exploded near his vehicle, wounding an Iraqi child. Gaya snapped a photo of a soldier cradling the child, and trying to hush away his tears.

"He was comforting him, just like my mom would when I was a kid," said Gaya.

Other photos show Gaya's buddies on guard, in buildings with walls pocked by mortar rounds, rifles at the ready. In one shot, a helicopter hovers above a soldier keeping watch on a rooftop as ground units search the neighborhood.

"I thought it was an interesting photo just because of the vast emptiness of the background. And as the bird was flying by it almost looks like an insect that could sting you at any moment if you do the wrong thing," he said, laughing quietly at the memory.

Gaya, dark-eyed and gravel-voiced, has a photographic style that captures the stark loneliness of war, the endless hours of watching and waiting for something to happen.

"I think combat should be photographed in black and white and it should be grainy because that's the way I saw it," he said. It's a vision shared by some of his fellow soldiers.

"I showed one of these photographs to my friend and he looked at it and he said, 'You know, when I look at these photographs that's pretty much how I remember Iraq -- black and white and grainy. I don't remember the golden sunsets or any of the brown from the sand.' "

Gaya is proud of his unit -- the 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment based at Ft. Lewis, Wash. -- and of its success in curbing insurgent attacks in western Mosul, the Sunni Arab part of the city where militants were most active. He served about eight months in Iraq.

But it came at a high price. Several of his friends were killed, including Sgt. Benjamin Morton of Wright, Kan., who shared his love for photography.

"I'm proud to have served with the unit," Gaya said. "We helped that city a lot."

After the explosion, doctors stitched up Gaya's left eye, which had been pierced by a bomb fragment. He was fortunate, they told him, that his eye had not lost all its internal fluid, which likely would have led to its permanent collapse.

But the vision remains impaired -- he can only make out shapes and light and billboard-size letters, he said. At this point, Gaya is considering a cornea transplant.

The wound has turned his life upside down.

When Gaya returned to Ft. Lewis, he joined other injured soldiers assigned to odd jobs around the base. With his impaired vision, his days as a sniper were over.

Some days he would help move furniture; other times, he would prepare barracks for the return of the battalion.

The attack had also upturned other parts of his life. The Argentina-born immigrant, who moved to the United States as a child, was injured just eight days before he was to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen in a ceremony in Iraq.

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