Photojournalist and former U.S. Army Captain J.T. Blatty knows about war. A combat veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, in 2018 she embedded with volunteer soldiers of the war in eastern Ukraine.
“Frontline / Peace Life: Ukraine’s Revolutionaries of the Forgotten War,” a new exhibition at the Ukrainian Institute of America, chronicles Blatty’s determination to document the Ukrainian soldiers’ fierce patriotism and the struggles they faced to return home after years on the frontline.
In 2014, thousands of ordinary men and women self-deployed into eastern Ukraine to fight against a Russian-backed insurgency. Without military training, they “abandoned everything they knew to fight for their homeland, their fellow citizens, their civil rights and their vision for a life free from government corruption,” writes Blatty in her artist statement. Now, as the war enters its sixth year, the 2014 volunteers who took on the most violent period of the conflict, are confronted with a different type of battle. Blatty captures the solders as they consider how to “abandon a war when it’s still ongoing,” and how to “begin the process of healing and reintegration when their comrades are still taking up arms and dying a six-hour train ride away.”
“The answer to most of these questions,” writes Blatty, “is that they cannot.”
Many soldiers remain on the frontline, unable to find their place within the “peace-life” and unable to walk away from a purpose for which they have lost so much. Physical and psychologic injuries aside, a large number of the original volunteers remain undocumented for their participation in the war and cannot achieve “combat participant status,” a label that would grant access to a veteran support system, though severely underequipped and underfunded.
When Blatty went to Ukraine, drawn by the community soldiers create, she intended to “document and preserve a form a patriotism” far from her own reality of fighting wars. “I live in a world that revered my patriotism for deploying into Afghanistan months after 9/11. But how was I a patriot for simply doing what Uncle Sam told me to do, under contracted obligation?” asks Blatty. A year into the project, Blatty realized what was at stake was much more than historic preservation. She writes of the soldiers, “Their stories need to be told now more than ever, because their stories are so very far from over.”