“I got blown up.” That’s what they say. “I was right there in the blast seat.” Blast force—the signature injury of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan—creates a pressure so powerful it can be seen before it is heard or felt. Soldiers remember confusion, deafness, slowdown, the feeling of being squashed. Positive and negative pressure waves roll through the body, shattering nerve pathways. And the soldier is never the same. They say they feel “crazy:” hyper-vigilant, sleepless, suicidal. They have language and hearing problems, memory loss and migraines. They anger easily. They abuse alcohol and drugs. Wives and lovers leave them, and their children fear them. Soldiers long for a missing arm, leg, eye—a visible wound that would command respect and understanding. The veterans in these photographs—Aaron, Bo, Chris, Perry, Tiffany and Maj. Jeff Hall—found help at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, a Department of Defense institute that serves some of the 360,000 men and women damaged by blast force injuries. In addition to receiving sophisticated imaging and care from physicians and therapists, soldiers make masks. Making art cracks open the trauma and then knits the brain. The masks, like MRIs of their psyches, make the scars of blast force visible, a first step to healing.
Lynn Johnson photographs the human condition. A regular contributor to National Geographic, Johnson searches for beauty and meaning in elusive, difficult subjects—threatened languages, zoonotic disease, rape in the military ranks, the centrality of water in village life. She collaborates with the people she portrays to honor their visions as well as her own. She is not afraid to ask the tough questions: Hate Kills, her master’s thesis as a Knight Fellow at Ohio University, probed the impact of hate crimes. And as a teacher, Johnson engages her students to ask them too. At National Geographic Photo Camps, she helps at-risk youth around the world find their creative voices. At Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, she is helping to develop a program that challenges master’s students in the Multimedia, Photography and Design department push past their own comfort levels.