When We Were Soldiers

“It’s a silent exodus that Americans can sense – but maybe not quite see. The gradual disappearance of millions of veterans has accelerated rapidly, ushering in an erosion of the nation’s social landscape.”

“It’s the passing of an era never to be repeated.”

In a rigorous review of federal, state and local census data, reporter Brittany Van Heyningen discovered the arrival of a dramatic demographic shift that will tilt the fulcrum of veteran influence as we know it.

She and photojournalist Cal Gaines chronicle the issue through six decades of veteran migration, the collapsing veteran universe in the Northeast, the largest expansion of national cemeteries since the Civil War, the microcosm of a single 195-home street and the intimate journey of terminally ill veteran Ivan DeBaecke.

This Special Publication/Section When We Were Soldiers has won first place for special section in the Society of Professional Journalists 2014 Sunshine State Awards.


It is a great honor in my first year as a photojournalist for The Daily Sun to be awarded the following awards for this project.

-Society of Professional Journalists – First place award for Special Section

-Florida Society of New Editors – First place award for Photo Story

-Florida Press Club – First Place Special Sections

This journey brought me into a cold, dreary meeting hall in Rochester, NY., where a VFW post is fading into the shadows. To the life of  WWII veteran Ivan DeBaecke who survived the Dust Bowl and Great Depression and his childhood farm in David City, Neb. where he will return to walk through fields of grain when his time has come. This project taught me more about life than I ever realized.  Within these veterans eyes, I saw hope, I saw sorrow, I saw fear, and I saw all of their tomorrows that they sacrificed for our today’s. When I was walking around in Rochester, NY.,  I came across a VFW mailbox and on the side it said “Hello, remember me.” I will never forget… The Greatest Generation.




Photo by Cal Gaines, Photojournalist


Dear soldier,

I know I’ll never understand what it was like to sail into enemy waters, fly a dangerous mission or fight in far-away jungles. 

I can’t imagine the pain you felt when bullets pierced your skin and shrapnel shredded your limbs. I’ll never know your fear upon waking in a hospital and feeling a piece of yourself missing. 

Facing the enemy in battle isn’t something I’ll ever experience. And my nightmares will never equate to the ones that have haunted your dreams for decades. 

I can’t imagine your desperation to survive as you jumped into water saturated with the blood of your friends.

I don’t know the icy cold of winter that seeped into your bones as you struggled to stay warm.

But I must thank you.

Thank you for the time you gave, the months and years you served your country, even though it meant losing time with the ones you loved.

Thank you for risking your life daily for a cause you believed in. 

Thank you for your last breath, wherever it may have been. 

Thank you for the blood you sacrificed to protect your family, your country. 

Thank you for having the courage to stand and fight. 

Thank you for sacrificing your tomorrows for my today.

— written by Brittany Van Heyningen, Journalist.

This letter and photo were published in the Dec. 7th, 2013 edition of The Villages Daily Sun

This entry was posted in Photography.

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