Reaffirming My North Star at Storytellers DC

Posted November 14, 2016 by Bill Putnam

I’m a veteran.

Since leaving the Army in 2006 I have spent the last few years trying to figure out my way, to find my north star, in the world. I just never – but probably should have – expected to hear my own north star reaffirmed last week in Silver Spring, Md.

That happens to most of us when we cut sling load. There is no correct path, though, and my path was to continue what I did in uniform.

I served a bit under 11 years, three in the Regular Army from 1995-1998 as a Patriot Missile Launcher crewman and the rest in the National Guard, where I reclassed to public affairs. I was deployed a bit over three years of those last eight years. I worked at several weekly newspapers in Seattle or tried college when I wasn’t deployed.

My last deployment was to Baghdad in 2004. It was a hectic year running around southwest Baghdad. It was, maybe, the most productive and fulfilling year of my life. It ultimately changed me. It took a crazy random meeting with a renowned Australian war correspondent to push me to follow my own path.

I got out and started covering the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was, like I said, my path.

Jump ahead a few years and I’m now a student at American University. It’s humbling to be a 40-something Gen X’er in classes with Millennials (I was talking to a classmate the other day and she was four when 9/11 happened. I was 27). But this is my path and, for the most part, I’m happy with it.

Throughout these warzone trips and college classes and everything else in between I’ve had a north star, a guiding principle.

The principle is simple. “Live the life they couldn’t.”

For some reason I’ve kept a tally of the people I know who were killed downrange. I wasn’t trying to be morbid, it’s just something I did. The total, and it’s probably low, is about 20 Americans. If we include the linguists I worked with in both Iraq and Afghanistan the number probably jumps to 40.

They were good, honorable, flawed and intelligent people. They came from everywhere and worked together for a common goal – to serve each other and the country, selflessly. They died too young and in horrible circumstances. Yet, I made it home. Somehow. I still wrestle with that. I always will.

The one thing I keep in my head with that wrestling is my north star. How am I going to honor Dave and Ray and Travis and Mike and Pam and everyone else who died? The answer is easy: I live my life the way they would because they can’t.

So when I asked Mark at Got Your 6 about photographing the Storytellers DC event I didn’t expect to have my north star reaffirmed. I made a lot of photos, but as the event went on I found myself listening more.

U.S. Army veteran and manager at Deloitte Will Reynolds speaks at Storytellers DC on Nov. 10, 2016. All photos courtesy of Bill Putnam Photo.
U.S. Army veteran and manager at Deloitte Will Reynolds speaks at Storytellers DC on Nov. 10, 2016. All photos courtesy of Bill Putnam Photo.

I listened to a retired captain talk about competing after losing a limb.

I listened to a judge talk about spending a night in jail with a special forces veteran who needed a buddy.

I listened to a stand up comic talk about finding his own unlikely path.

I listened to a former battalion commander talk about becoming a high school principal.

I heard a beautiful song about accepting the past and moving on.

I listened to retired Navy chief who now helps combat human trafficking.

I listened to a former combat engineer talk about taking up the mantle and finishing the job for his grievously-wounded brother before being grievously wounded himself.

I listened to a widow talk about finding her own path and starting an amazing organization.

I saw a paralympian walk.

A common theme and idea threaded their way through the stories. And with just one exception it wasn’t explicitly stated. Each storyteller talked about them in their own way because each of their experiences and how they punched through them was different. Throughout these stories my own north star was, like I said, unexpectedly reaffirmed. The idea is a simple one. It’s “living a life worthy of their sacrifice.”

All of us walks our own path. It doesn’t matter, at least to me, if you served in uniform or not. Everyone is a product of those who sacrificed something. How we live our lives is a reflection, I guess, of how we saw those sacrifices. Live your life how they can’t and keep punching through the obstacles.

They’re ideas we should all ponder.

Bill Putnam is a U.S. Army veterans and a student at American University’s School of Communication majoring in broadcast journalism. His work can be seen at billputnamphoto.net, and on Twitter and Instagram.

U.S. Army veteran and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald.
U.S. Army veteran and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Bob McDonald.
U.S. Army veteran and paralympian Centra “Ce-Ce” Mazyck.
U.S. Army veteran and paralympian Centra “Ce-Ce” Mazyck.
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U.S. Navy veteran and comedian P.J. Walsh.
U.S. Army veteran and chief executive officer of Wounded Warrior Project Mike Linnington.
U.S. Army veteran and chief executive officer of Wounded Warrior Project Mike Linnington.
U.S. Army veteran and Wounded Warrior Project speaker Deven Schei.
U.S. Army veteran and Wounded Warrior Project speaker Deven Schei.
U.S. Army veteran and former principal of Detroit Central High School David Oclander.
U.S. Army veteran and former principal of Detroit Central High School David Oclander.
U.S. Marine Corps veteran and musician DaniFigueroa.
U.S. Marine Corps veteran and musician Dani Figueroa.
U.S. Navy veteran and founder of Reliance Incorporated Glenn Pangelinan.
U.S. Navy veteran and founder of Reliance Incorporated Glenn Pangelinan.
U.S. Air Force veteran and president and founder of TAPS Bonnie Carroll.
U.S. Air Force veteran and president and founder of TAPS Bonnie Carroll.