‘It’s worthwhile’: Photo shoot of local veterans helps illustrate their military service

Military veterans living at the Belmont Village La Jolla senior community put their service in the viewfinder of photographer Thomas Sanders for photo shoots Aug. 21 that will become a permanent exhibit at Belmont Village.

Sanders created portraits of the veterans with personal memorabilia illustrating their experiences and drew out their stories recorded by Belmont Village staff.

The exhibit, called “San Diego American Heroes: Portraits of Service,” is planned to be revealed by Veterans Day in November.

“I feel honored,” resident David Sobo said of being included in the exhibit.

Sobo, a private first class in the Army for two years, was drafted in 1955 to the infantry but was later transferred to the Ordnance Corps.

Sobo is one of the 27 veterans at Belmont Village La Jolla out of its 107 residents.

Sanders has been carrying out the “American Heroes” project at the 33 Belmont Village locations nationwide. “At every Belmont Village senior-living community we do this permanent veterans exhibition,” Sanders said.

The La Jolla-area community has been open about a year and had not yet participated.

Sanders is visiting three local Belmont Village locations this week —Sabre Springs, Cardiff by the Sea and La Jolla.

“It’s so memorable,” said James Arp, senior executive director at Belmont Village La Jolla.

Sanders began the project as a graduate student 18 years ago while attending Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

“I had this homework assignment where I photographed this World War II veteran,” he said. The veteran’s story of surviving the explosion of a shrapnel mine in Italy “blossomed into me wanting to travel the country and photograph veterans.”

Sanders’ goal is to “make people more appreciative of veterans’ stories and help put their life into perspective,” he said.

Belmont Village La Jolla resident Jerry Burrell, who served in the Navy for six years, is photographed by Thomas Sanders.
Belmont Village La Jolla resident Jerry Burrell, who served in the Navy for six years, sits for a photo shoot by Thomas Sanders.

Sanders began working with Belmont Village Hollywood in 2008 and expanded to a national tour of Belmont Village communities in 2015 in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Sanders has turned his portraits into books, including “The Last Good War: The Faces and Voices of World War II” in 2010 and “Vietnam War Portraits: The Faces and Voices” in 2020.

There also is a version of the exhibits on permanent display at Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports.

“The project really has a life of its own,” Sanders said.

For the photo shoots, Sanders encouraged the vets to bring pieces of their military experience, from uniforms (or hats Sanders provides) and swords to medals and microscopes.

Thomas Sanders photographs Bill Massicot, a naval commander who served from 1960 to 1988, in full dress uniform.

Belmont Village La Jolla resident Bill Massicot, a naval commander who served from 1960 to 1988 and was based in San Diego three times, arrived for his session in full dress uniform.

Massicot said he’s glad Belmont Village is highlighting veterans’ service. “It’s worthwhile,” he said.

Carrying on the project in San Diego is significant since there are so many military bases here, Sanders said.

“[The goal is to] make people more appreciative of veterans’ stories and help put their life into perspective.” — Photographer Thomas Sanders

The project also is “community-driven,” he said. Residents’ caretakers are involved in preparing memorabilia, and the veterans can meet other vets at the facility.

“It creates a sense of camaraderie,” Sanders said.

The photo shoots aren’t limited to those who have served for the United States. Belmont Village La Jolla resident Amnon Ben-Yehuda was in the Israeli army during the War of Independence in 1947-48 and had participated in special units in previous years.

His Belmont Village photo shoot was the first time Ben-Yehuda had worn his badges and medals on his lapel.

“It wasn’t the kind of thing we would demonstrate,” he said.

Ben-Yehuda, who wrote the book “Healing the Wounds of War” about his experiences, feels a “brotherhood with all veterans,” he said. “We all go through pretty much the same thing. I’m proud of that brotherhood.”

Sobo said he believes military or public service — from building roads to serving abroad or working in a hospital — should be required.

“All the youth of this country should join the military or do some sort of public service,” he said.

Massicot’s best memories of his service are the times he was out at sea.

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Just doing your job.”

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