Wives of veterans decided to take part in a photo shoot, using it as a way to tell their stories. The result of that project is an amazing calendar.
“I am a veteran’s wife and a mother of two. The story of my family is the story of wounds suffered during the war which cannot be seen outside.” – a lot of memories told by the wives of soldiers who have been on missions could begin like that. Aneta, Urszula and Paulina are only some of the many women that had to take full responsibility for the safety of the hearth and home when the fathers of their children fought far away from the country. They are the ones who amazed everyone with their strength in daily life struggles.
The idea had been maturing for several years. The veterans’ wives participated in psychological workshops organized regularly by Stowarzyszenie Rannych i Poszkodowanych w Misjach poza Granicami Kraju (Association of the Wounded and Injured in Missions Abroad). They noticed that all the stories they told were similar. However, not many people paid attention to the women, as the media focused mainly on their husbands. They decided together to step out of the shadow and publish an album which would tell their stories through photos.
The driving force behind the initiative was Aneta Stępień. In spring 2019, she created a group for veterans’ wives on Facebook and called it “Razem silne” (Stronger Together). “We wanted to publish the album. I was hoping that thanks to the social media we would find people who might want to support our initiative,” she recalls. Several minutes after she had published a post about the album, a photographic studio contacted her and offered to take part in the project. When Aneta Stępień shyly asked: “How much is this going to cost?,” she heard: “We won’t be talking about money.” The “Razem Silne” group is made up of 15 wives of veterans who agreed to tell their stories.
Two photo sessions were planned. Urszula Streng was among the women who came to the first one. “I accidentally came across the group »Razem silne« on Facebook. I thought it was a fantastic initiative, as someone had finally noticed the soldiers’ wives, who hadn’t gone to war, but who had nevertheless supported their husbands,” she says. Urszula was accompanied by her husband, Dawid, and their children: the 8-month-old Marysia and the 6-year-old Bruno, wearing a special forces uniform and sitting in a wheelchair. “My name is Ula and I am a veteran’ wife, which I am very proud of,” begins her story the wife of SCPO Dawid Streng, a special operations forces soldier. When her husband left for the mission, she was seven months pregnant. Their long-awaited son, Bruno, was born. She thought that he would become a commando, like his dad, but unfortunately he was born with many defects. He had his first, life-saving operation on the first day of his life. “My heart broke into a million pieces when I heard that he might not make it,” recalls Urszula Streng. She remembers the tangle of cables attached to the tiny body, her husband’s palms touching the baby’s hands, and his uniform reflected in the side of the incubator. “My husband asked me what he should do: stay or go back to the mission? I was in two minds. I wanted him to stay with us. My heart fought one of the hardest battles in my life, but I made the right decision – I let him go. I was sure I would be fine. I had to be. After all, I am a wife of a commando and a mother of a little hero,” recalls Urszula Streng.
During the first photo shoot a new initiative was spontaneously born. The participants agreed to make use of the photos taken by professional photographers in two ways: in the album published to celebrate Veterans Day, and in a calendar, the income from which would be donated to Bruno’s rehabilitation. “This little fighter stole our hearts,” says Aneta Stępień. The boy needs help, as his spina bifida caused many other health problems, such as hydrocephalus and paresis of lower limbs. Bruno has undergone many operations, but there are more that await him. He also has to be rehabilitated on a regular basis. Rehabilitation helps to eliminate muscle contractures, among other things.
The photo shoot was like a family picnic. The sofa was full of girls holding mugs of coffee and talking about life. Next to them, the make-up artist was matching face powder to the person that was next to stand in front of the camera. In the makeshift dressing room stood hangers with clothes: airy dresses next to military uniforms.
“When Bruno saw me in full make-up before the photo shoot, he frowned and said: »Mom, look at yourself, you have to wash it off!« – and I felt like a million dollars, as if I were posing for the cover of Vogue magazine,” says Urszula Streng. When the shutter of the camera opened and closed, she had her husband and son at the side. She wanted her face to convey strength, and you can only be strong when your family is together.
Emotions in Front of the Camera
From hundreds of taken pictures, they had to choose 12 for the calendar. In each photo, the women’s eyes reflect the internal strength that had helped them overcome fear and get through the time their husbands had been far away on missions. They used the same strength to guard the family when the men were already back, but could not find themselves in everyday life.
Aneta Stępień looked into the camera with anxiety. She once again felt the emotions that had overwhelmed her several years before, when she learned that her husband Leszek, then in the rank of lieutenant, had walked into a trap mine while checking the terrain for a newly built road. He was the first Polish soldier wounded in Afghanistan. She once again saw him walking down the stairs in a hospital in Berlin, with a prosthetic leg. “Everything will be ok,” she thought then. Aneta Stępień admits that this thought has appeared in her mind many times after that day, and now, even though it has already been 17 years, it is becoming harder and harder to return to those memories.
Urszula Saczek feels the same way. “I don’t want to go back to that moment,” she says about the first minutes spent at the Ramstein base hospital in Germany, when she saw Mariusz, injured, and lying in a tangle of cables connected to medical equipment. The tall, fit man who had left for the mission, came back as a disabled person confined to a wheelchair who starts each day with a dose of painkillers. She waited for a miracle, but the miracle did not happen. Instead, there were a lot of everyday problems. They lived in a flat located on the landing between two floors. Mariusz’s friends from the unit had to carry him up the stairs on a chair, so they finally decided to buy a house outside the city, and adjusted it to the needs of a disabled person. “Mariusz has finally stopped saying: »Why would you need a man who can’t stand on his own two legs, who won’t even be able to play with his own kids?«. Now we are married, and our son is six,” says Urszula Saczek. “I have everything,” says Mariusz. “Besides the fact that I can’t walk.” Urszula Saczek admits that when she stood in front of the camera, she got cold feet. However, when she looked at Mariusz, she thought that in the photo she wanted to show that she supports her disabled husband, gives him strength to get through each day.
Mission without Return
2nd Lt (Res) Agnieszka Pasko was a nurse in Afghanistan, and WO Grzegorz Pasko commanded a clearance team. She went on a mission because she thought that a military medic’s place is where the soldiers are. For him, on the other hand, the army was life. “Neither of us has truly returned from there, as we both don’t really want to return. This brutal world of war is, and will always remain, also the world of our love,” says Agnieszka Pasko.
Grzegorz Pasko protested against having his face powdered for the first time in his life. Agnieszka bravely looked into the camera. She was thinking about one drawing by Wojciech Siudmak from the Dune series, on which the flow of sand symbolizes the passage of time. “My sand were cartridge cases. Many of those went through my hands on the mission,” she says. “I am proud that I have obtained an officer’s rank, that’s why I’m wearing a ceremonial uniform in one of the photos. In another one, we are sitting on a chest, Grzegorz is dismantling an explosive charge, and I am looking at him with full trust and confidence,” says Agnieszka Pasko. She thinks it is not easy to be a wife of a fighter. You must be patient and have a lot of love for him.
Support for Bruno
The patronage over publishing the “Razem silne” calendar has been taken by the “Pomoc dla weterana” (Help for a Veteran) foundation, which will also distribute it. “Maybe our calendars will find their place in commanders’ offices at units which have sent soldiers to missions,” says the head of the foundation, Joanna Janik. All those who would like to purchase the calendar and support the rehabilitation of Bruno Streng, can do it by finding the “Pomoc dla Weterana” page on Facebook. It is also possible to make donations for the boy’s treatment and rehabilitation through the “Zdążyć z Pomocą” (Help on Time) foundation.
autor zdjęć: arch. „RAZEM SILNE”