I recently spent 5 1/2 weeks in Iraq photographing the largest deployment of Maryland National Guard troops since World War II. Six Maryland units were scattered in bases across that country, filling an array of security missions.
The soldiers, sometimes weighed down with body armor, helmets and ballistic goggles, looked imposing. But some - I came to notice over time - carried with them a very different kind of armor; religious amulets, good luck charms, photographs, and mementos given to them by loved ones or even strangers back home with the hope that they would protect in ways that Kevlar and ceramic might not and somehow ensure a safe return.
I took to asking them: "Do you have any good luck charms?" And they would pull, sometimes shyly, from a pocket or other hidden spot, their personal treasures.
Corporal Don Coe, of the 175th Battalion's Charlie Company, carries an emblem with a depiction of Jesus on one side and the Virgin Mary on the other. A woman Coe had never met gave it to him at a going -away ceremony for his unit. She said her grandmother gave it to her when she was a child.
Sergeant First Class Leonard Ward, also of Charlie Company, keeps a four-leaf clover his 5-year-old daughter Margaret found in the backyard along with a message from his sister and a piece of flag from his father's grave at Arlington National Cemetery.
Staff Sergeant Paul Dettmer of the same unit carries several items in what amounts to a personal time capsule in his breast pocket. There is a flag his father carried in Desert Storm and photos of his wife Melissa, 3-month-old daughter Kylie and 4-year-old son Gabriel.
Private First Class Alan Clark of Charlie Company carries a "support bracelet" made for him by his friend Stephanie.
These and other soldiers were not alone. I also carried keepsakes supplied by friends to keep me safe, - an amulet of St. Raphael, a translucent stone called an Apache's tear, and a Buddhist bracelet from an Orthodox temple, among other treasures I carried with me back to Baltimore.