For the past decade, a generation of troops has returned from Iraq and Afghanistan with wounds that few of their predecessors were able to survive. When they came home, they faced the challenge of not just healing but reshaping their lives. Since the wars began, nearly 50,000 American troops have been wounded. Almost a thousand lost limbs, and thousands more suffered severe burns. With Veterans Day here, TIME presents the story of Bobby Henline, a remarkable soldier who became a standup comedian, using humor as a powerful form of therapy.
Photographer and filmmaker Peter Van Agtmael spent years embedding with troops in both wars. His new film, Healing Bobby, is the second documentary from Red Border Films, TIME's documentary filmmaking unit and interactive digital platform. In conjunction with the film, TIME Lightbox is featuring a photo essay about Henline's extraordinary journey and a gallery of Van Agtmael's award-winning work.
Van Agtmael talked to TIME’s Nate Rawlings about the documentary and its subject.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been curious about war. I was a junior in college on Sept. 11, and I already had an interest in photography and journalism. Suddenly what was happening in the world was intersecting with what I wanted to do with my life. It became clear I was going to be a photographer and I wanted to go to Iraq.
When I first got there, I felt strangely comfortable, as if I were fulfilling what I was supposed to be doing. In some mystical, abstract way, it just felt right. I’m not quite sure why that is. It’s probably the unanswerable question: Why are certain people attracted to war? It’s baffling and troubling, but I felt at home in a weird way. Even when the shit started hitting the fan, I still felt O.K. with it.
There are certain iconic representations of war that are always going to be important and emotive, but I don’t see myself as an iconic photographer in the vein of James Nachtwey or Yuri Kozyrev. I had this idea that I wanted to do something that was going to make sense over a large number of pictures rather than just a few. I’ve been very influenced by fine-art photography, which tends to focus on the mundane more than it does on the dramatic, and so much of the experience of war is mundane. I didn’t know practically how it was going to manifest itself, but it built naturally over time. I tried to value a patrol or a bombing or a firefight as much as soldiers sitting around or graffiti on the walls.
I saw quite a bit of violent death, but one in particular stayed with me: an IED hit a Bradley Fighting Vehicle, igniting the fuel tank. They couldn’t get the ramp down, and one of the young soldiers inside suffered burns on over 90% of his body. He was still alive and still conscious; he was screaming for his daddy over and over again. That really shook me up. I had seen more violent deaths, but that one echoed in my mind for a long time.
That incident was one of my motivations for this story. After I reckoned with it, I wanted to explore the subject of people who had been badly burned. This is one of the important legacies of this war because in previous wars, most of these troops wouldn’t have survived. It’s a shocking injury to a lot of people, and many burned veterans are afraid to go out in public. They keep themselves on the margins of society a little bit because they don’t want to be gawked at. Bobby is an inspirational case. He had these horrific injuries, but he’s trying to do something positive with it by asking to be looked at and laughed at. His isn’t just a story of despair.
I wasn’t sure what to expect going in—who Bobby was going to be and what his emotional state was going to be like. He was amazing, an inspirational character, and I don’t say that lightly. He’s extremely open-minded and self-aware and kind and gentle and giving. That’s a rare set of qualities in anybody, especially someone who’s undergone such trauma. He’s a little bit of a legendary figure in my mind.
Every 500th of a second counts for a photographer. The images you capture are silent, two-dimensional ghosts of moments. There are some things they can’t represent. This kind of story—Bobby’s character, his viewpoint on the world—needed to stand out in a way that only film can show.
When I think about the wars, I go through various stages, trying to pass judgment on the consequences and meaning of the past decade. I’m going to have to save my opinion for a few decades and see how things play out. I hope it all amounts to something, because it sure as hell hasn’t been pretty so far.