To Be At War

Arin Yoon

2012 - Ongoing

This work explores the social impact of war on military families, who have supported America’s war efforts, unseen. In 2013, after becoming a military spouse, I moved from Los Angeles to Fort Irwin, CA, the National Training Center for US Army troops, where they practice simulated warfare right before they deploy. It was the height of the War in Afghanistan and the location was remote. I felt isolated and disconnected from this military existence and so I began taking pictures to make sense of this new life and engage with my community.

Less than 1% of the general population serves in the military and 60% of active duty service members have families. This shrinking demographic is becoming more family oriented and it is the family members who shoulder the burden of war. This community is always in a state of preparation for war, at war, or dealing with the aftermath of war. Because the civilian population is largely unaware of US military operations abroad, the divide between the civilian and military communities continues to grow, further alienating a community already under intense stress. Military families typically move every 2-3 years. Because of the (historically) small size of the force, the “operations tempo” is strenuous. Fewer soldiers must cover more ground, fulfill more duties, and in most cases, that means more family separations.

The military family experience is often reduced to the moment when a service member returns home. The embrace. The tearful reunion. These images do not capture the long preparation for deployments, training exercises that can be fatal, spouses (95% women) who raise children alone, often cut-off from critical support systems. These stressors are compounded by one-sided media representations of the military family experience, giving civilians distorted answers to the questions: “What is the cost of war?” and “What does it mean to be at war?” Through this work, I hope to bridge the civil-military divide through storytelling from within the community.

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  • Self-portrait through John's night vision goggles, San Bernardino, CA 2012.

  • Homecoming. They arrive in the middle of the night. Eyes sleepy, searching for their families. They look like ghosts- in this space between deployment and home. Some of the soldiers are crying. Maybe it's just mine. Fort Stewart, GA, 2018.

  • John holds Teo, the night before leaving for his first combat deployment as a father in 2015, Fort Stewart, Georgia.

  • Jennifer Herbek nurses her child in Leavenworth, Kansas. "We all grew up fast, courtesy of war," she says.

  • Mila plays with friends Mia, Alexandria, and Juliana for the first and last time after lockdown before her friends move at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 2020.

  • John poses for portrait in 2011, a few months after a combat deployment to Afghanistan. When I first met John, he had nightmares. He’d shout things like “release the helicopters” and “we have to find an escape route.”

  • Teo waits to see his dad after a nine-month deployment in 2018, Fort Stewart, Georgia.

  • Teo holds a doll that has a photo of John inserted in a sleeve, while Mila takes care of her stuffed animal.

  • Jiyeong Laue cares for her daughter, Serenity, behind their home in 2014 in Fort Irwin, California.

  • Teresa Wiles and her son Major Josh Wiles, and his daughter Mackenzie visit a house Teresa and Josh lived in from 1990 to 1992 in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Between 2014 to 2015, Josh himself was stationed at the base with his wife Amber, who also lived in Fort Leavenworth as a child since her father served in the Army.

  • Self-portrait at a B&B in between duty stations, Leavenworth, KS, 2014.

  • Teo climbs in an 1117 Armored Security Vehicle during a family day visit to Fort Stewart, Georgia, in 2016.

  • Cheyenne Croney has journaled while her husband was away on a year-long deployment to Guantanamo Bay. She wrote, "It’s been a challenge doing everything on my own especially when I’m not connected to my husband. The man I’ve built this life with that I love unconditionally.”

  • Denise and Andy Buissereth, before deployment, Fort Leavenworth, KS 2015.

  • Teo crawls through his father's deployment gear in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 2015.

  • LEFT: Teo draws close to John, who wears a hearing aid, in 2021, in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Service members are at greater risk than civilians of hearing loss due to repeated exposures to high intensity noise such as small arms fire, artillery fire, and explosions from training exercises and deployments.

    RIGHT: Mila touches the scar on John's shoulder from being shot while on a 15-month deployment.

  • Major Alice Kim, whose husband is also in the Army, poses in and out of uniform in 2020, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

  • LEFT: Military spouse Dana Abella opens the blinds as her son, Nathan Abella, plays for the last time in their home in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Each move means making a new set of friends for both parents and kids.

    RIGHT: Soldiers at Fort Irwin practice conducting a clearing operation in an urban environment. Fort Irwin is the National Training Center for U.S. Army units before they deploy.
    (Photograph by my husband, John Principe)

  • LEFT: Moving trucks and U-Hauls line the streets of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Within a few weeks, everyone on this block had moved to a new duty station.

    RIGHT: Teo and Mila are now old enough to realize when they have to leave their friends, or if their friends are moving away. Here, our neighbor, Alexandria, waves goodbye to her friends as her family drives away to a new duty station.

  • LEFT: Jiyeong Laue and her daughter, Serenity, pose in their backyard in Fort Irwin, California. Meeting other military spouses made me realize how much the war affected the families of service members.

    RIGHT: Armored personnel carriers protect a tactical planning, command and control post at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, California. Moving from a vibrant arts community to a super militarized environment was a shock for me.
    (Photography by my husband, John Principe)