There are those famous photos of war. There are photos that capture both moments of intense action and the interludes in between. 

Photos can capture the misery of training, the lonely moments, the late nights, and those hurry up and wait days when you are packed in a room with dozens of other Marines for a reason you can’t discern. 

The U.S. military documents itself through the Defense Visual Information Distribution Service, or DVIDS, a vast repository of public domain material that’s available for use by the public and the press. 

That material, though, can be, as one former military photographer put it, filtered through a “very specific narrative.”

It is easy to get a pulse on what story the military hopes to tell by looking at what images and videos it produces,” the military journalist Kelsey Atherton noted in the days following the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

But the photos and films taken by service members themselves can provide an unfiltered, unvarnished look at what it’s like to serve. While more than 1,000 photos and 60 videos were taken by official military photographers during the evacuation from Kabul in August 2021, what better captured the chaos, confusion, and occasional laughs better than two weeks worth of GoPro footage taken by a Marine on the ground?

And just about everyone has a few photos of their own that capture the absurdity and camaraderie of military service. 

There’s a highly disciplined soon-to-be Army officer — and Avenger platoon leader — getting acquainted with the Air Defense Artillery branch. (It’s me, in green.)

Mandatory Fun photo
(Photo courtesy of Max Hauptman)

There’s the officer who made a bet with his motor pool that they couldn’t go a week without having a 7-ton truck breaking down. Improbably enough, this may be the only Marine to bet against Marine Corps maintenance and lose, and two weeks later the officer had his head shaved in front of the entire formation.

Mandatory Fun photo
(Photo courtesy of Matt Sampson)

There’s the duck that was brought to Baghdad as an informal unit mascot, only to have it kidnapped and tortured, with the footage being sent to the unit First Sergeant. 

Mandatory Fun photo
(Photo courtesy of William Linde)

There are the photos that capture how you think you look…

Mandatory Fun photo
(Photo courtesy of Paul Szoldra)

And how you actually feel…

Mandatory Fun photo
(Photo courtesy of Paul Szoldra)

And there are the photos that, like Proust’s madeleine cakes, can probably trigger memories of exactly what it looked, smelled, tasted, and felt like on a deployment years ago. 

Like a photo of a Rip-It can, that places a stint downrange squarely in the Global War on Terrorism era…

Mandatory Fun photo
(Photo courtesy of Paul O’Leary)

Or a photo that sums up what the living conditions were like during the surge years. Such as this one, from March 2010 in Marjah, Afghanistan, a month after Marines pushed into the city, when they were sleeping in the dirt, and quite literally didn’t have a pot to piss in. They did have a pit though. It smelled like gone-by tomato sauce. And urine.

Mandatory Fun photo
(Photo courtesy of James Clark)

What is something that captures your military experience? From the mundane motor pool Mondays to a long deployment, share your photos in the comment section, on social media, or email them to, and tell us the story behind them.

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