They’re older and grayer now, the men and women who stare unsmiling into the camera. Their figures, shot against a black background, are superimposed on jungle foliage. It looks as if they’ve been surprised, at night, in a private moment: remembering the Vietnam War.
That's the feeling San Francisco Bay Area photographer Thomas Sanders is aiming for. As an undergraduate at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he started a series of portraits of World War II veterans that would eventually lead to a book called The Last Good War. As a graduate student at San Jose State, Sanders launched something similar with U.S. veterans of the Vietnam War, as well as South Vietnamese veterans, and other Vietnamese refugees who came to California.
"The idea is that the viewer becomes emotionally enthralled by the portrait," Sanders says. "Then, right next to the photo, is a brief history on that veteran or immigrant, and they get to learn an individual story about them."
Sanders has been working with veterans groups and the San Jose Elks Club to identify people like 69 year-old Dave Sanders -- no relation to Thomas -- who brought a piece of shrapnel with him to the photo shoot. "From a 122 millimeter rocket that almost got me. Almost!"
Dave Sanders doesn’t have any illusions about the war, but he’s proud that he enlisted. He volunteered for military service right out of high school. "All of our friends were being drafted. So the inevitable was coming," he says.
Sanders made it back in one piece from Vietnam after a one -year tour of duty from May of 1967 to May of 1968. He returned home 50 pounds lighter, but carrying the weight of post traumatic stress disorder.