From undocumented immigrant who served in Afghanistan to veteran who fought on both sides of WWII, Muskegon Museum of Art exhibition sheds light on military lives

Dr. Elizabeth Allen, of Ypsilanti, Michigan, was one of 150 black nurses to serve in Vietnam. Photo by CJ Breil.

When artist CJ Breil began taking photographs of veterans for the University of Michigan Medical School, the individuals would pour their hearts out to Breil, sharing some of their most intimate moments with him. Immediately, Breil knew he needed to find a way to share their stories—and save them for generations to come.

He went on to launch “Conduct Becoming: A Survey of Distinction,” an ongoing photo essay project that captures and preserves the stories of United States military veterans—and which is now on display at the Muskegon Museum of Art. A gallery talk with Breil will be held at the Muskegon Museum of Art (296 W. Webster Ave.) on Thursday, Jan. 10 from 5:30-6:30pm. The event is free and open to the public.

“I was hired by the University of Michigan to do head shots of veterans for a study they were conducting,” said Breil, who lives in Ann Arbor with his husband. “They were showing students head shots of veterans, currently and of younger versions of themselves. They wanted to teach these 28-year-old students that when you’re looking at someone who’s older, they have a younger self. There’s a relationship there.”

Artist CJ Breil stands before his exhibition at the Muskegon Museum of Art. Photo by Anna Gustafson

Being able to see, and honor, a person for all of the years they’ve lived is, of course, not relegated to those in medical school—which, in part, is why Breil wanted to continue to photograph and interview veterans for his project. He even became so inspired by what he was hearing that he founded a nonprofit three years ago, Conduct Becoming, which documents veterans’ experiences and memories through photographs and recorded interviews.

“While the public may hear the statistics, powerful images and personal stories will help crystalize and bring into focus the true magnitude of their sacrifice,” the nonprofit states on its website. “Our goal is to create the largest living multimedia database of veteran stories and make this resource accessible to the general public, veterans, and the people who care for them to ensure our veterans’ service and sacrifice is not forgotten by generations to come.”

The photographs included in the exhibition at the Muskegon Museum of Art were taken over the past four years and include individuals from a wide range of backgrounds. There’s Dr. Elizabeth Allen, one of 150 black nurses to serve in Vietnam. She now lives in Ypsilanti, Michigan and continues to battle post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Kristin Beck is the first openly transgender Navy SEAL; following her service, she went on to run for Congress in Maryland. Wladyslaw “Walter” Kwiatkowski fought on both sides of World War II.

“A young man living in Poland with his family, he was given a choice,” Breil writes in his MMA exhibition. “He had to literally walk through one door and be shot or walk through a second door and serve in the German army. He chose to live, as an unwilling infantry man in the German army, but was careful to always shoot over the head of the ‘enemy.’”

Kwiatkowski, along with his unit of the Polish contingent of the German army, was liberated by the Russian army and placed in a POW camp.

“He endured regular beatings and starvation until he was again liberated, this time by the Allied Forces,” Breil writes. “He continued to fight in the Polish contingent of the British army.”

Arnie Rothenberger and Brian Stanfill met and fell in love while serving during the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” era.

“Much of their early life together took place in complete secrecy for fear of ‘losing everything,'” Breil writes.

Alejandro Valencia, who lived in extreme poverty as an undocumented immigrant in southern California, served the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

During World War II, Mildred “Jane” Doyle was a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots—which wasn’t recognized as part of the military until 1984. She received a Congressional Gold Medal in 2011.

Theirs are the complex stories that make up the United States military—and the United States. These are the stories of people who fought for a country and world that didn’t always love them back, but to which they nonetheless fiercely dedicated themselves.

Arnie Rothenberger and Brian Stanfill in their Scottsdale, Arizona home. Photo by CJ Breil

These are the stories that may not always be easy for everyone to hear, but which are deeply important when both honoring veterans and trying to understand who we are and who we aspire to be as a country: stories of patriotism and marginalization and PTSD. Of homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and racism.

They are also stories of great joy and pride, of selflessness and service. These are the lives that are inextricably linked with our own, the stories that, woven together, create the fabric of our country.

“Here, people can tell their story, and this project became a ‘thank you,’” Breil said. “It’s an, ‘I see you for your service.’”

For the photographs, Breil captures the individuals in their homes and interviews them about both their service and their lives after the military. In each picture, they hold a photo of themselves when they served, and the juxtaposition between the two is a powerful and poignant reminder that our lives march on. Until, eventually, we are no longer here to share our story.

“His images take the viewer into the homes and personal surroundings of U.S. military veterans, offering a look at the personal and private, the complex individual in contrast to the uniformity of the soldier,” the Muskegon Museum of Art writes. “When effective military service and performance requires self to be set aside in favor of discipline and conformity, what is lost and what is gained? And what happens to the individual when they return to the civilian world? Breil doesn’t provide the answers, instead allowing the subject’s life to reveal itself through the unveiling of visual cues brought about by observation and empathy.”

The gallery talk with CJ Breil will be held on Thursday, Jan. 10 from 5:30pm to 6:30pm at the Muskegon Museum of Art (296 W. Webster Ave. in downtown Muskegon).

Story by Anna Gustafson, the publisher and editor of Muskegon Times. Connect with Anna by emailing or on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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