The recruitment ad that started it all is still on YouTube if you just search for “marine lava monster.” In the commercial, a man strides out of a white beam of light in a post-apocalyptic landscape. The man dives through the blades of a turbine to attain a sword (as a fireball shoots to the sky). Then, while balancing on a tightrope of blue light, he slashes a lava monster, and the inferno of its demise sweeps up the man turning him into a Marine.
Rewatching the video that persuaded him to enlist in the Marine Corps, Scott Ostrom has a long laugh at his apartment in Boulder, Colo. “…And then he puts on his dress blues and looks so good…I want that,” he said over the phone.
Ostrom, 27, an Iraq War veteran with PTSD, found his experiences to be far different from the recruitment spot. The painful long road after his deployment was documented by Denver Post photographer Craig F. Walker and the subsequent photo essay won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography on April 16.
Ten days after joining boot camp, on May 20, 2003, Ostrom’s drill instructor came into the barracks. “I hope you didn’t plan on getting a free ride to college ‘cause we’re going to war with Iraq,” Ostrom remembered him saying. “I didn’t even know where Iraq was on a map.”
Walker’s project, titled “Welcome Home,” chronicles Ostrom’s return home from Iraq — and the resulting nightmares, hypervigilance and rage. It required full commitment by both Walker and Ostrom. “I told him he’d have to let me be there for everything, good days and bad,” Walker said.
The poetic photos expose the viewer to a tumultuous range of emotions. In one frame, light outlines the bright thread of a suicide attempt that holds together two halves of a skull tattoo. There are also heartbreaking emotional moments, including one where Ostrom weeps after having his apartment application rejected because of an assault charge.
One of the most powerful visual metaphors is a frame where Ostrom faces into a blinding block of light. Here, he waits for his girlfriend to pick up her belongings after a breakup. Ostrom seems to be not only looking into his internal paranoia, but also viewing a hostile outside world from a dim room.
Some of the most astounding features of Walker’s photography are the depth and sheer amount of time he dedicates to his subjects. Walker’s work does not offer fleeting glimpses into his subjects’ lives.
Walker’s first Pulitzer in 2010 was awarded in the same category, feature photography, recognizing Walker’s series on Ian Fisher, who enlisted as a baby-faced 18-year-old. Walker stayed with Fisher for two years through graduation, enlistment, basic training, first assignment, breakup, breakup, Iraq, marriage and frequent returns home.
In a video of Walker receiving the news of the Pulitzer Prize in the Denver Post newsroom, someone informs Walker’s new baby, “Your daddy just won a Pulitzer!”
Walker’s boss had sneaked Ostrom into the newsroom so he could be present for the announcement. After congratulations all around, the video cuts to Ostrom. “This story has definitely saved at least one guy’s life so far,” he says.
Ostrom said that he just got word the day before that the Department of Veterans Affairs finally officially recognized his PTSD. He hopes that the compensation will help him resume a semblance of normal life. Furthermore, he hopes to enroll at the University of Colorado.
View the other 2012 Pulitzer Prize winners here.