Ivan DeBaecke

Ivan-Debaecke

 

On the afternoon of October 16th, 2013 I was on assignment to cover a story on a WWII veteran named Ivan DeBaecke who was given the opportunity to relive a memory that he had wanted for a while, to ride in a Ford model-T. Little did I know that the next 2 hours spent with Ivan would turn into an in-depth project where I would spend long sessions with him as he talked about his life, learning about the treacherous times of living during the Dust Bowl as a young boy, entering the military as a teenager, his loves, his fears, and ultimately traveling alone to his hometown of David City, Neb., to explore the prairie lands of a childhood farm home and his final resting place.

 IvanDeBaeckeOne of Ivan’s most fondest memories dates back to 1926 when he was 3-years-old riding in the cab of the  vehicle with his family leaving behind his hometown of David City, Neb., for the trek to Bethune, Colo. As morning turned to mid afternoon 2 local veterans driving a classic model-T showed up in his driveway and as the horn echoed from the street, the 89-year-old partially deaf man sprung up from his chair as if he were a young child excited beyond belief and said that he recognized that sound. With a large smile stretching across Ivan’s face — almost forgetting to grab his cane to help him walk — he approached his front door and within moments was taken back to 1926. His eyes gazed, while his fingers danced on the front of the vehicle immediately discussing his story and tidbits about the classic car, seconds later Ivan was asked if he would like to go for an afternoon ride followed by a bite to eat. He reached for the passenger door, climbed in, and for a brief moment I saw that 3-year-old boy through the lens of my camera.

As my journey with Ivan lengthened into a special report called When We Were Soldiers, I started seeing him more often and documenting his story alongside a reporter. During these next few months it was apparent to me that this started to feel quite reminiscent of Tuesdays with Morrie written by Mitch Albom, a wonderful book that I read as a teenager. Ivan had a lot to say about his life, they were lengthy sit down sessions where he told the great story of his life. Each time he looked down for a second silently transitioning into another chapter, I could see that he was traveling back to that very moment before he spoke. We turned through the pages of historic books together, talked about how he found the love of his life on general assignment in Deland, Fla., in 1944, looked at pictures of his family, his wedding, discussed death and learned of his terminal cancer.

WhenwewereSoldiers One of my fondest memories was one afternoon asking Ivan if he still had his military uniform and he replied that he had. I was nervous to ask him about it and even more nervous to see if he would put it on for me. He agreed and with a smile on his face reached for his cane and proceeded to the bedroom where a fully pressed suit tightly fitted in a clear plastic bag rest on a hanger in the closet. I gave him a moment to change making sure he was doing alright and seconds later appeared Ivan DeBaecke in his suit and hat on his head. Weak in the legs from changing, Ivan had to take a seat at the foot of the bed to rest. Now staring into the mirror on his dresser with a picture of his wife Dorothy on one side, he expressed how long it had been since he wore the suit and how so much has changed. I knew that this was my moment to capture something very special so I did. Moments like these don’t come around often and I saw a man looking at himself in his military uniform, gazing into his past like it was just yesterday. For those few moments it felt like Ivan wasn’t there, it felt like he was entering the military as a young man or dancing alongside the love of his life to their favorite song. Our session ended that day after he changed, and instead of our usual handshake and see you later I gave him a hug and thanked him.

You see my time with Ivan was the absolute greatest opportunity I have ever encountered in my career with another human-being, and documenting his life through my camera changed me forever. It was private and personal, but it was a story that really needed to be told. After learning of his imminent death, Ivan was unsure as to when it would come and I knew that spending as much time with him as I could was important to get his story. He was surely optimistic about the next phase of his life by saying that death is ‘a destiny we’re all going to have to take and accept.’ Prepared for it he was with a plot and headstone ready for him back home in the prairie land of David City, Neb. All that remained was for him to be laid to rest, but Ivan didn’t want his wife Dorothy to go to her grave until he could go with her and held onto her ashes so that they may go as one. I learned so much from Ivan and developed a relationship with him, we were friends. Even after the project published I would visit with him from time to time and now that he is gone I wish I would have visited more. Ivan might be gone now from this life and on his way into the next journey, but my time with him will stay with me until the end of my days. My life is richer because of his, I vow to make my love with my girlfriend and future wife as strong and vibrant as his was and can only hope at the end of my days that I have someone to tell of my great adventure to. Ivan said, ‘life itself is a tapestry of memories, both good times and bad, times we will remember and cherish.’

WhenwewereSoldiers

Ivan DeBaecke’s story is one of every man of his generation. A small town farm boy who grew up during the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. He was a war veteran, signing up at the age of 17, six months before the attack on Pearl Harbor and served in the United States Navy for 25 years. He served in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam. A husband for 60 years to his beloved wife Dorothy, a father and a grandfather, Ivan lived a life full of dignity and bravery while overcoming a time of adversity. His story will leave something very special behind for not just myself but for his family, other veterans, future generations and for journalism.WhenwewereSoldiers

This generation experienced so much turmoil and suffering, overcame mountains of struggle and some remembered every single step of the way. I know that each generation has their own battles, but honestly in this country I don’t know if anyone will ever have to live the way that they lived or if our stories will ever be as telling as theirs were. Honestly even though they went through a lot, the stories are so compelling and they define each of them so well, each of us would be grateful near the end of our lives to be able to sit down and tell such a story.

Remember Ivan, remember each life lost to keep ours alive. Ivan hopes that American society will remember the values his generation cherished. To be responsible for yourself. Be frugal, work hard, keep a level head, use common sense and above all never to give up on what you love. He says ‘continue your patriotism to this country and do the right thing to keep this country going, each succeeding generation leaves their legacy and mark on civilization, so do your best.’

Rest in everlasting peace Ivan James DeBaecke and thank you

December 23, 1923 – July 28, 2015

WhenwewereSoldiers

If you would like to read When We Were Soldiers and more about Ivan’s story written by Senior Reporter Brittany VanHeyningen

Follow this link – When We Were Soldiers

For more photographs from the story – When We Were Soldiers

Posted in Photography, Photojournalism Tagged , , |

Remember Helene

A few years ago I was on assignment covering a piece on a woman telling her story as a Holocaust survivor. I can vividly remember the tears pouring down the audience’s faces and the sound of my shutter echoing throughout the building. After a few shots I took a moment and sat down to listen to her encounter. Helene Siegel, from Belgium, stood at the podium with great courage as she told her story for the very first time.

         

The small church nestled off of a county road brought an intimate setting for Helene with about 60 people in attendance to listen to the story that she had to tell. For all of her life she has carried a burden, a burden that haunted her, but also made her stronger. She never discussed her experiences with her family and as a single mother she raised her children and put them through college.

In 1942, Helene was separated from her family when Germany invaded Belgium. She was taken in by a Christian farming family who took in children. Later these children would be known as ‘Hidden Children’ of the Holocaust.

For years as a child, Helene was carted numerous times to farms all over Belgium living with different families connected through the same network and a lot of them belonged to the diamond trade. At times taken away in the middle of the night from her bed — through snow, forests and rain — and beneath the shadows of the night a stranger would take her to the next farm to keep her out of the hands of harm. She was always told to say nothing and to speak to no one as she was a Christian girl and bad people were coming. Each and every farm home told her the same thing that they were going to protect her, because their were people that would tell the ‘Gestapo,’ (Nazi Police), about farms that housed children.

Helene grew up confused during a time when time didn’t have much meaning to her at all. She would go to bed clothed each and every night because she may have to leave at any moment. Her life at times was a nightmare, having to hide between floor boards and through bedroom walls as the Gestapo walked through homes screaming and yelling in search of families that housed ‘Hidden Children,’ that were Jewish.

Frightened, sad, lonely and at times misunderstood, Helene endured situations that no human should ever have to face. She was once placed in a bedroom wall with some other children and as one of them started to scream while the Gestapo entered the home, shots were fired. The children were pulled out of the hidden spot in the wall and killed. They didn’t see Helene. She said that she waited what felt like days before she left the spot that she was in. Climbing out of her spot in the wall to a lonely silent home, she described walking through pools of blood to a massacre of innocent children and the people that died to keep them all hidden.

Helene’s story is one of great despair. As a child she learned to grow up fast as there were times when she was alone and had to fend for herself when there was nobody to turn to. She survived through a life-long nightmare that has haunted her even as she raised her own children. Her soul was tormented and for many years she was afraid of the world because of what she has lived through. Helene also lost family in the Auschwitz concentration camp.

That evening Helene looked fear in the eyes and with great courage, determination and heart she rose above her fears and shared a story that will forever stay with me.

-Remember Helene-

Posted in Photography, Photojournalism

Toys of War

It is very hard to read about things like this, let alone watch them. We must remember every single day to count our blessings, because these children and children around the globe that encounter the things shown in this video don’t deserve the torment that they are going through.

As children we were safe. Had a warm bed to sleep in, new clothes on our backs and fresh food on our tables from the hard work that our parents put in to take care of us. We threw tantrums when we didn’t get what we wanted and forged friendships with kids around the corner sharing our manufactured toys. We were just kids and our parents would always tell us to be thankful for what we had because others didn’t have the same opportunities as we did.

This world is filled with kids that don’t have the opportunity to live out their childhood because they are running in fear. When the fear subsides they try and go back to playing in the dirt with their friends and having an imagination. They don’t know what being spoiled is like or entering a store where everything you could possible want is at your fingertips. They have no choice, only the will to live.

We also have our own trials and tribulations here at home and at sometimes they seem overwhelming and can be difficult to overcome. When our dust settles, we move along and sweep it away. When the dust of a war-torn country settles, the children come out to play, until the dust rises again.

 

Posted in Photography

America’s Organ Crisis – A Daily Sun Special Report

I am honored and very happy to share this project that was 9 months in the making! I hope the work that we have done here is informative as well as heartfelt.

 

Senior Reporter Brittany Van Heyningen discovered an organ shortage reaching crisis proportions, especially for the nation’s senior population.

She and photojournalist Cal Gaines chronicle the issue as the industry considers its first policy changes in decades.

 

 http://www.thevillagesdailysun.com/app/organs/index.html

 

This was quite a journey. From the transplant recovery unit at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, The Houston Texas Transplant Games of America, to Mayo Clinic Jacksonville and University of Florida Health in Gainesville.

Throughout this journey the people that we met made an impact on our lives that will never be forgotten. We had the great opportunity to walk alongside transplant recipients and donors while documenting their triumphant stories and seeing the smiles as well as the tears. We connected with a local family where the father is still waiting for the phone call that his liver transplant is ready, sat down with medical professionals to gain their insights on the issues facing organ donation, documented one mans journey in Houston as he competed in the Transplant Games of America and captured the story of a dad who lost his son in an accident and his organs saved the lives of 5 people.

The time, the dedication and the heart that went into this project was at times difficult and stressful, but we gained an exuberant amount of knowledge and learned a little bit about ourselves along the way.

On a personal note, I never really gave much thought at all to being an organ donor. I learned a lot during this project and I have to get to the DMV sometime soon so that when it is my time or something tragic happens taking me from this life, the lives of others might just be saved.

Thank you to everyone that was a part of this and made it possible! Please share it with your friends and family.

 

 

Posted in Photography, Photojournalism

B-29 Superfortress

As the WWII bomber flew overhead on a dreary Monday, the dark grey clouds parted as a small beam of light from the evening sun opened in the sky and the B-29 Superfortress began its final pass with the 4 turbine engines roaring in the air as landing gear slowly appeared. Standing there judging the distance I quickly grabbed my longer lens, snapped it in place, and pointed up as fast as I could hoping to not miss a shot. Minutes turned to seconds and the B-29 called ‘Fifi,’ descended about 200 ft from where I stood during the Commemorative Air Force’s “Air Power History Tour,” at the Leesburg International Airport.

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Landing smoothly, smoke erupted from the undercarriage and it was one of the most largest war planes I had ever set eyes on. Making its way down the runway a large crowd of plane enthusiasts and veterans gathered to see the magnificent monster of a machine — the same monster that dropped the bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki saving roughly a million American lives and a few million Japanese. Although this B-29 at the show never dropped bombs it is one out of a handful that survived the war and is the only one that still flies today.

Watching the crew deplane was very interesting. In full head-to-toe gear, they each fit the role of operating such a historic piece of WWII. The shafts of the undercarriage opened, ladders fell from the cockpit, small windows popped up as bodies wiggled from the top of the aircraft and each person did their duty. For a brief moment it was like watching young men in the 1940s scrambling around performing maintenance and making sure everything was done with precision.

After coming down from the high that was placed before me from all of the adrenaline, the reporter and I were asked if we would like to come aboard. The high immediately came back and hit me like a bag of bricks. With my camera wrapped around my side and my flash dangling like a noodle from a cord I held on to a very thin ladder ascending up into the cockpit. As the smell of oil and gasoline disrupted my senses I felt like I was in military fatigues getting ready for flight preparations. Lifting myself up to the last step into the B-29, sweat began to drip from my brow. The sound of high heels clicked as they echoed and followed me remembering that I was a photojournalist on assignment as the reporter made the last few steps as she joined me inside.

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From all of the years of use, the metal, the paint, along with the gas from the engines and the equipment, it had a distinctive odor that history embedded inside of the aircraft. So many different gauges, wires, equipment, seats for flight engineers and gunners crowded the space. The outside of the bomber seemed so huge, but the inside not so much. Looking around, I was in utter amazement as I sat down in the pilot’s seat the perspective changed. Ahead of me the window was huge and round and I wondered what it would have been like soaring in the sky over the Pacific.  I just couldn’t get over that I was sitting in a B-29, a once in a lifetime chance to experience something so unique, yet a historic piece to the United States military.

Turning around I began to photograph, leaving my flash with the reporter as she descended back down to reality. I wanted to spend a few minutes alone up in the hull of the bomber capturing some of the natural light as it illuminated the space creating a lonely ambiance that only a slower shutter speed would be able to capture. In front of me now was a hole in the plane about 15 ft or so long. Below it were the areas where the replica bombs now lay to rest, but at one time the B-29 Superfortress carried a 20,000 lbs payload. To my curiosity I had to know what was on the other side of the plane so I yelled down to the man at the ladder and asked him if I could crawl through the dark hole to the other side. He replied yes and yet again with my camera strapped to my side I forced my way into the crawl space. The very small space felt like a mouse-hole, dark with hardly any headroom and a long green camouflage cushion under my knees. I tried to imagine what it would have been like for a young man pushing his way through this dark tunnel thousand of feet in the air possibly being fired upon as crew members yell and the sounds of return fire from the gunners echo.

Making it to the other side there is a tall chair on a platform with a plastic type dome-shaped window. I pull myself up to the chair and it is a top gunner seat in the back of the aircraft alongside a starboard waist gunner, a port waist gunner and a radar operating area. By this time I am completely overwhelmed and the inside of the plane is muggy and hot, but nonetheless I see a way back out onto the ground as the rest of the crew passes cargo out a back entrance ladder.

My experience on the B-29 Superfortress was nothing short of amazing. Being inside of an aircraft that men were on during WWII was something very unique. The opportunity as a photojournalist for something like this was once in a lifetime, also taking into consideration that this is the only B-29 that is flying.

The day after the reporter and I were on assignment for this we picked up a 90-year-old WWII veteran, Vinny Ranzino who was a Flight Engineer in the Army Air Corps that was on a B-29 in 1945 to bring him out to the Leesburg International Airport so he could see and relive a moment from his younger days. We captured his story while we were there and it was heartfelt and wonderful to see the smile on his face. He knew a lot about the aircraft and was excited to walk around with us as he touched the plane and even waited in line to climb up the ladder into the cockpit so he could sit in the same seat that he sat in 69 years ago. We climbed up with him, and for a brief moment as he placed his fragile hands upon the gears, Vinny was a young man again.

 

 Photos by Cal Gaines, Photojournalist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Photography Tagged , , , , , |
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