What it means to serve

Story highlights

  • Photographer Platon took portraits of U.S. military members and their loved ones
  • The images illustrate their sacrifice, pride and resolve

(CNN)Jessica Gray stands tall and strong, wearing her late husband's Army T-shirt. His wedding ring rests on a chain around her neck, as her arms wrap tightly and emotionally around the folded American flag that was draped over his coffin just a few months earlier.

Prior to this picture, the metal box containing his belongings had remained at the edge of her bed, unopened.
    Until photographer Platon Antoniou helped Gray pry it open.
    Platon, who goes by his first name, had met Gray in 2008 when he began working on "Service," a collection of portraits looking at the effects of war on America's military and their families.
    He had suggested she wear an item of her husband's as a tribute in her portrait.
    But all of his clothing was in that box.
    Photographer Platon
    Platon said she suggested they open it together. They both knelt down and undid a latch each.
    "She burst into tears. And I suddenly felt so ashamed of myself. Here I was for the sake of a photograph, encouraging her to step into this pain all over again," Platon said.
    "She looked at me and she said: 'You don't understand why I'm crying, Platon. I'm crying because they've washed his clothes. And I wanted to smell him again.' "
    That is when Platon realized "Service" would go much deeper than the original plan of capturing bravado and pride, of shaved heads, combat boots and training camps.
    Instead, it would be about people's lives, their valor, and sacrifices.
    Gray put on the clothes of her husband, Staff Sgt. Yance T. Gray, and stood for her picture with a look of strength, sadness and devastation. But she's not a victim, Platon said: She's a courageous woman who is trying to piece her life back together.

    'No one will hurt him again'

    Platon has built his portfolio photographing world leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Aung San Suu Kyi.
    But leading up to Barack Obama's first election, he wanted to shift away from politics and humanize the big issues instead. In doing so, he would show the flip side to power: service.
    He embedded himself alongside the men and women who make extraordinary sacrifices every day to serve in the United States military. He focused on training leading up to their deployments, and he documented their returns from war.
    "When you've experienced the chaos and carnage of war, how do you readjust to normal society?" Platon asked. "You almost never do. And what I saw was devastation."

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    One such story he captured at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where Sgt. Tim Johannsen had been recovering after losing both legs during his second tour in Iraq. His wife, Jacquelyne Kay, looked over at Platon and said: "He's mine now. I'm looking after him. No one will hurt him again."
    And with this she put her arm around him like a shield to protect him.
    "It was the most incredible transition of power I've ever witnessed," Platon said of the image, No. 10 in the gallery above. "He suddenly feels her strength so much that he can actually close his eyes and fall into her embrace.
    "This guy is like (a) rock emotionally and physically, but to see such tenderness and love between the both was devastating."
    After a year of intense work shooting "Service," Platon needed space from the project to understand what it meant as a collection.
    Since he started the project at the beginning of Obama's era, he thought it might be interesting as we look to the next leader, to revisit the work once again.
    "I never imagined it would be more relevant today because of our divisions in America than it was when I (first) took the pictures," he said.
    Eight years on, "Service" means something different to him now.
    It's about the deep physical and psychological wounds that war has left on veterans and their families. But it's also about pride, strength and the resolve that embody those who serve.
    And above all, Platon believes it's about holding leadership accountable and being accountable ourselves.
    "We have the capacity to take a stand and cure society's amnesia," he said.