The rooms left behind when soldiers’ lives are lost

By Mark Guarino September 20, 2014

Downers Grove, Ill. — Theresa Gilbert can’t help it. She often finds herself inside the bedroom closet of her late son, Thomas.

“It still smells like him. The cologne,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t want to go near that room. Sometimes we want to go in there and sit.”

A roadside bomb in Fallujah killed her 24-year-old son, who served as a Marine sergeant in the Iraq conflict. In the months after his death on Oct. 25, 2006, his parents and two sisters who live in this far western suburb of Chicago were deluged by local and national media cameras, and then by friends and neighbors.

“Many of them wanted an opinion on the war rather than our opinion about our loss,” says Michael Gilbert, Thomas’s father.

Then came an unlikely new face: Ashley Gilbertson, an Australian-born photojournalist from New York who called the family to express his condolences but also to share his own story. He worked in Iraq between 2002 and 2008, winning prestigious photography awards and seeing many of his images become a lens into how the public has come to understand the war — and especially the toll it has taken on soldiers. He also revealed that he, too, had suffered a loss: a Marine escort was killed in front of him in Fallujah in 2004, a horrifying event that caused him to suffer guilt for years.

The experience eventually sent Gilbertson back home to the United States, where he began seeking military parents to get to know them and their fallen soldiers, and to ask whether he could photograph the soldiers’ childhood bedrooms as a tribute.

“We had a number of press people approach us, and they were rude in many ways. They met all the social requirements of apologizing for our loss, but you could see they really didn’t care. When Ash came here, he really cared. He had been in Fallujah and had earned his stripes in our book to be an expert about it,” Michael says.

Bedrooms of the Fallen” is a collection of 40 photographs taken all over the United States and across Europe and Canada. In black and white, they are images with profound intimacy. Some walls are splashed with patriotic images, while others display neatly organized framed art and degrees. Others are stocked with video games and sports memorabilia, and some display religious mementos or hand-drawn art.

In Thomas Gilbert’s room, a fish tank sits atop his dresser, where Sgt. Turtle, the pet he brought home and named when he was 12, still crawls over small tree branches. These days, five nephews and nieces whom Thomas never met come by the house to feed the turtle and play on Thomas’s bed. “They love Uncle Tommy’s room,” Theresa Gilbert says.

The featured bedrooms, now empty, once pulsed with life, which is why they have been preserved for years after the deaths of their former occupants. Families keep the rooms in order for different reasons. To some families, they are shrines that cannot be touched. To others, these spaces offer a way to viscerally engage with lost sons or daughters. Most would find packing up these rooms disturbing, a kind of erasing of their loved ones’ presence from the family home.

“Those rooms hold so much power,” says Gilbertson, 36. “This book is my attempt to make people aware of what we’re losing.”

Lisa Merrill, a professor of rhetoric and performance studies at Hofstra University in Long Island, N.Y., who has conducted research on rituals in everyday life, says that the bedrooms “speak loudly in terms of the very full and very complicated lives that were lived there, but also there are silences that would be only noticeable to the people who interacted with them.” She says they are likely a rich source for reflections on the lives of those lost because they often represent “physical markers” that show the soldiers’ transitions from childhood to adulthood.

“Those spaces were lived in, not just in the moments of the soldier’s death, but in all those years before. That’s a whole life those rooms offer, which can represent a significant potential for healing,” Merrill says.

Goals and challenges

Gilbertson says his goal was broader: to bring attention about the consequences of war to the individual lives that are at stake, a gesture that is too often lost in the foreign policy debate that takes place before troops deploy.

“Whether we agree or disagree with what the president or Congress has decided to do, in a working democracy we have to take responsibility for those decisions because we voted,” he says. “I want people to think harder before [we] decide to go to war.”

The project took seven years. Gilbertson primarily relied on The Washington Post’s “Faces of the Fallen” database, which tabulates all the information he needed — names, ranks, ages, home towns, and more — to determine which families might be most approachable. He established limits — no cold-calling families with soldiers who died recently or those whose phone numbers were not readily available, suggesting that they did not want to be engaged.

Once he made contact with a family and the call led to an invitation for a visit, Gilbertson would engage the parents and other family members in conversation before asking for permission to shoot the bedroom — he was seeking insights into who the individual was so that he could then best capture what the person had left behind.

“I wanted people to remember them. It’s easy to intellectualize the work and make it bigger than it is, but that was the heart of the project,” he says.

In doing so, Gilbertson established regular contact with the families. He encountered parents who were still caught in the fog of grieving and others who said they were so grateful that someone wanted to know more about their children’s lives before combat.

There were encounters that stay with him today. The father of Jack Sweet, who was only 19 when he was killed by an improvised explosive device in Jawwalah, Iraq, in 2008, showed Gilbertson a laundry hamper overflowing with his son’s unwashed clothes.

“I kind of feel my son might be on some kind of secret mission and he might come home at some point and then he can do his damn laundry himself,” the man told him. A year later, Gilbertson contacted the father and asked him about the clothes. “We’ve given up on that now,” he told the photographer. “But I can tell you that laundry will never get washed because it will always smell like my son.”

For a photographer conditioned to shooting the pulse-pounding chaos of combat, shooting empty rooms proved a challenge. Gilbertson says he studied architectural photography to reestablish the basics, but he also did not want to make contact with a single object in the rooms, which forced him to learn “crazy positions, almost yoga moves, to try to stretch a tripod in places without touching any object.”

“In some ways, I felt I was entering a time capsule, and for me to touch or anything would be meddling with a factually correct and [preserved] space,” he says.

Final acts

The rhythm of the project was slower and more concentrated than he was used to as a war photographer. He got to know some families over several trips before ever taking out his camera. He focused on objects in the room that provided familiarity — a mixed-tape collection, books, shot glasses — and which he decided would become entryways in his photographs to give a sense of each fallen soldier, which would then add to the gravity of the person’s being gone.

He stopped at 40 photographs. During the last shoot, a mother ran to the bed and threw herself down, balled up the sheets and wailed. As the father of a 5-year-old son, he says he was emotionally drained.

“I was actually afraid I would start hardening up and not empathizing enough, but exactly the opposite happened: the more I did it, the more I could empathize with the family,” he says. “I don’t think I could have done 41.”

The Gilbert family will soon shut the door to Thomas’s bedroom and walk away. Their house is on the market because they are downsizing. But for them, the decision is not without hardship.

“We’re totally conflicted,” Theresa says. “I don’t have any idea how I’ll pack up his room.”


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