Shots of War
By Travis M. Whitehead
January 3, 2008 - 8:29PM

EDINBURG - A group of Iraqi women and small children stand outside a doorway.
An American marine sits on a curb with his weapon propped on his leg while staring down in silence.

But the photograph Marine Corps Sgt. Rey Leal likes the most is the one he took of a small child looking up at a very tall American.

Titled, “Gentle Giant,” it’s one of many photos taken by Leal, 24, while serving with the Marines in Iraq; 25 of his photos will soon be on display at the Sekula Memorial Library, 1906 S. Closner.

“What am I trying to communicate is things you don’t see in the newspaper, little things,” Leal said. “The media doesn’t see it, it’s things day to day that you’re not going to see unless you’ve been there seven or eight months and you’re able to capture it.”

Leal attended Edinburg North High School with Dustin Sekula and knew him as a casual acquaintance. When his sister, Loida, approached him about an exhibit at the library named after the fallen Marine, he had only one answer: “I had to.”

Marine Pfc. Dustin Sekula was 18 when he died April 1, 2004 from enemy fire in Al Anbar Province, Iraq. He was the first Hidalgo County serviceman killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Loida Leal, coordinator of the exhibit, describes herself as her brother’s biggest fan.

“He just captures so much with so little,” she said. “Out there, all you have is your camera and your gun. He’s so down-to-earth. When he picks up that camera he’s a completely different person. He just, he has that eye.”

Her brother served in Iraq in 2004 - 2005 and participated in the Battle of Fallujah; he served again between January and August 2006, patrolling along the Euphrates River.

His photos depict a broad range of experiences in Iraq: the photo “By The Fire” shows a bright light shining against a relaxing camouflaged marine and casting broad shadows against a wall. In another picture, a group of Marines are rushing a wounded comrade on a stretcher toward a helicopter. In “Dirty Doll” a wide-eyed Iraqi girl stares out of the photo.

“They give you a feel for what it is the soldiers are experiencing,” said Margot Durbin, assistant director of the Sekula Memorial Library. “They are gritty, very real. You see everything in there. You see the fear, the tenderness, the homesickness.”

Leal said he isn’t sure how he developed his talent for photography. He took pictures in high school, and read about war photographers such as Robert Capa, but he had given up the idea of becoming a photographer, electing instead to shoot photographs for posterity’s sake.

Then his battalion commander took a look at his work and posted some of his photos on the battalion Web site.

“Gentle Giant” especially caught people’s attention, prompting speculation about the meaning of the photograph. As for Leal, he wasn’t trying to make a statement at the time. He was merely posting sentry while his squad leader spoke to the head of the household, and snapped the picture of the Marine and the little girl.

“I got such a great response, I decided to do something with them,” he said.

His photography has taken a new direction. He will leave the Marines in February, but he’s already formed BST Films (Blood, Sweat and Tears), which has already shot commercials in Orange County, Calif., and done some independent films.

“I am actually in the process of getting funding for feature length films,” he said.

WHAT: Reception for “My Time In Iraq”
WHERE: Sekula Memorial Library
1906 S. Closner Blvd.
Edinburg, Texas
WHEN: Jan. 10 at 6 p.m.

Travis Whitehead covers features and entertainment for The Monitor. You can reach him at (956) 683-4452.