Capturing families’ most private memorial of troops

By Colin Shively

Marine Corps Sgt. Thomas M. Gilbert of Downers Grove, Ill., paid the ultimate price for his country when an improvised explosive device detonated in Falluja, Iraq, on Oct. 25, 2006. It was from that moment that the lives of his parents, Theresa and Michael, would be forever altered.

Their son was gone. However, there was a memory of their son that would go untouched—his bedroom. Now, the family can share that memory of who their son was with the help of photographer Ashley Gilbertson.

In 2007, Gilbertson conceived the idea to honor the memory of fallen troops of Iraq by photographing their bedrooms. It is his goal to remind the country that these heroes were normal people before the war took their lives. He named the project “Bedrooms of the Fallen.” After two years, however, Gilbertson extended the memorial project to include those who have died in Afghanistan as well.

Prior to “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” Gilbertson’s photography centered on death, posttraumatic stress disorder and suicide in the United States. He said one of the main themes was the idea of mortality and death. After working in the Arlington National Cemetery taking pictures of funeral processions of troops, it became clear to Gilbertson that he was missing the bigger

picture of what was important.

“My wife, Joanna, told me that I was missing something,” Gilbertson said. “She said I needed to photograph the absence of the soldiers, to photograph their bedrooms, to look at the most difficult part of losing someone you loved. This is a story about who they are and their lives.”

The overall goal of “Bedrooms of the Fallen” is to photograph 40 bedrooms across the nation to display on the Web site and to publish a book that features the photos.

Currently, 19 bedrooms across the nation have been captured by Gilbertson.

To have the bedrooms photographed, family members either contact Gilbertson or he contacts

the family then travels to where they live.

It is not, however, a visit to photograph the room and then a quick departure. Gilbertson takes time to get to know the family of their fallen loved one.

“I laugh with them and I cry with them,” Gilbertson said. “After they become comfortable with me, they open up their lives to me to show the most private life of their loved one. It is hard, I always have a plane ticket home, a wife to go home to, but they wake up every morning with the empty bedroom there.”

Theresa Gilbert said when Gilbertson contacted her about “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” he came out to a memorial service in Sgt. Gilbert’s honor to take photographs especially for them.

“The bedroom is still the same, and it is going on four years,” Gilbert said. “The fact that we are not the only ones preserving the bedroom makes me feel that I am not alone in what I am doing and the respect that I am giving my son by leaving it the way it is.”

After the photo of her son’s bedroom was taken, Gilbert said people contacted her to express their thoughts about how they had never thought about that aspect of losing a loved one.

“We are left with everything to just go into a drawer,” Gilbert said of packing away memories. “I have grandsons now and my one grandson will sleep in Uncle Tommy’s bed. It is still Uncle Tommy’s room and bed. That is what the room is known as, for all of us. It’s Tom’s bedroom.”

Gilbertson said he believes there is a disconnect in the United States in the way the lives and sacrifices of lost troops are remembered.

It is his hope that this project will create a new way to remember who they were before taking part in the war.

Gilbert, however, said she believes Americans still honor the memory of troops. There are just new ways these men and women are remembered and in the future there will be more memorials, she said.

“We will be in a different state and we have come across something with our son’s name on it,” Gilbert said. “There is a lot more individual honoring than there was for the past wars. They are all being honored justly, and it is amazing.”