Photographer Michael Ciaglo ’12 Part of Colorado Springs Gazette’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Team
Michael Ciaglo ’12 (Photo: Jake Swantko)
“We hired a new investigative reporter, and he was writing about wild horses and trying to interview [former Colorado senator and US Secretary of the Interior] Ken Salazar. Then Ken Salazar threatened to punch him in the face.”
Michael Ciaglo ’12 was a recent graduate from the UO School of Journalism and Communication and was just an intern at the Colorado Springs Gazette at the time, and though he did not know it, his life—and the lives of the investigative reporter, Dave Philipps, and countless war veterans—was about to change drastically.
“[Philipps] came into the photo studio and asked to get his photo taken, because we were going to run a story about [Salazar’s threat]” Ciaglo recalled. “I told him I’d like to work on something with him.”
Several weeks later, Philipps approached Ciaglo with a story he needed a photographer for: soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder were getting thrown out of the military because of misconduct that was, in part, due to their injuries.
“My boss agreed to let me work on the story, so I worked on it for the next six months,” said Ciaglo.
Like many Ducks, Ciaglo is interested in political and social causes, and had already spent time in Ghana shooting child laborers who lived in squalor while they dismantled the US and Europe’s e-waste. To him, the “Other Than Honorable” story about veterans was just as important to tell.
Ciaglo and Philipps spent the better part of half a year documenting the lives of three former soldiers: Kash Alvaro, who was hit by multiple bomb blasts in Afghanistan one year after joining the Army as an eighteen-year-old; Jerrald Jensen, who lost part of his face after a bomb ripped through his Humvee in Iraq; and Paul Sasse, who was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Alvaro, Jensen, and Sasse are all years apart in age, yet all three are linked intrinsically by being among the many soldiers suffering from PTSD to be given other-than-honorable discharges from the Army.
“Everyone leaving the military is given a character of discharge: honorable, general, other-than-honorable, bad conduct or dishonorable,” Philipps wrote in the first entry in the Gazette’s “Other Than Honorable” series. “The last two can be given only as a result of a court-martial conviction. Most soldiers kicked out for misconduct get an other-than-honorable discharge, records show, which strips them of military and VA benefits.”
The Army doesn’t play favorites when it comes to handing out other-than-honorable discharges: Sasse was a sergeant with five medals for heroism, four for excellence, and three for good conduct. It doesn’t take much to receive the discharge, either.
“The Gazette found troops cut loose for small offenses that the Army acknowledges can be symptoms of TBI and PTSD,” wrote Philipps. “Some soldiers missed formation a handful of times or smoked marijuana once. Some were discharged for showing up late or missing appointments. Some tested positive once for drugs, then were deployed to combat zones because the Army needed the troops, only to be discharged for the drug offense when they returned.
“One two-tour infantry soldier was targeted for discharge after missing three doctor appointments because he had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital for being suicidal.”
While Philipps chronicled the effects the PTSD and the discharges had on the lives on Alvaro, Jensen, and Sasse, Ciaglo documented everything through the lens of his camera: Alvaro in a bed at Memorial Hospital, suffering from heart spasms and seizures; Jensen buying rice for dinner because he can only eat soft foods; and Sasse, sitting in solitary confinement in the El Paso County jail after attacking his wife and military police shortly after his PTSD diagnosis.
All three suffering as a result of their serving America overseas, and all three being denied medical care by the country they fought for.
“We knew that this was special story,” Ciaglo said. “It had all the elements there. We knew what we were doing was going to change something.”
Five days before Ciaglo’s internship ended, “Other Than Honorable” was published. Three days later, the Gazette offered him a job. Then, in April, came the Pulitzer Prize.
“It was my day off, so I’d slept in and was watching TV,” Ciaglo said. “My friend texted me and told me to come in to work, because our editor was being weird about things. I went to the office because I had a camera to fix anyway, and I got a call from my girlfriend, who is a photographer at a different newspaper, and she said, ‘You won!’
“At that time, our editor-in-chief called everyone into the meeting room. Someone put a bottle of champagne in my hands, and told me we’d won a Pulitzer.”
Ciaglo’s response? “Crazy shock. I still don’t really think it’s hit me.”
But for Ciaglo, the biggest prize of all wasn’t being part of the team that won the most prestigious award in American journalism. The real reward was seeing the lives of soldiers changed following “Other Than Honorable’s” publication.
Two Colorado politicians tried unsuccessfully to get legislation passed in DC that would help veterans with PTSD. More successful though was Montana senator John Walsh, who introduced The Military Mental Health Review Board Improvement Act and The Suicide Prevention for America’s Veterans Act, the former co-sponsored by a New York senator who had been lobbied by a discharged veteran who had read “Other Than Honorable.”
“[Alvaro] now has VA benefits, has moved to Denver, and is now in school,” Ciaglo said. “[Jensen] has VA benefits. [Sasse] is now out of jail, he’s back with his wife and kids, and he has a PTSD service dog. He’s 100 times better than when we first met him.”
“It’s cool to win awards,” Ciaglo continued, “but to actually affect lives and legislation, that’s why people get into this job. “To right wrongs, that’s absolutely the most exciting thing.”
"Other Than Honorable" images courtesy Michael Ciaglo, Colorado Springs Gazette.