The holiday season can be an especially difficult time for military families who have loved ones serving in harm's way, around the world. New England photographer Sean Noonan wanted to do something to help bring American servicemen and women a little closer to their families this Christmas. Reporter Shannon Mullen stopped by his latest photo shoot in Stoughton, Massachusetts, to find out how.
Julie Mandelo sits alone under a pair of big umbrella lights, while Sean Noonan takes her portrait. She's wearing a red sweater, and she just put on some pink lip gloss. Now she's doing her best to smile like she means it, like she'd smile if her husband were here. She laughs gamely as Noonan coaches her: "Big smiles! Looking good!"
Her husband of two years, Airman First Class Michael Mandelo, has been in the Middle East for most of 2006, guarding planes in Qatar. She says the ordinary things make her miss him the most. "You come home every night, literally, to an empty house. That part gets a little old (unpleasant) by about week three," she says with a rueful laugh, "so you just try hard not to think about it."
Mandelo sends her husband a lot of photographs, but when she packed up the last stack, she realized there weren't many shots of her in it. So this portrait will be his Christmas present. She thinks he's going to cry when he gets it. "It will probably make his whole day, because that's really all he's asked for for the holidays - pictures. He just wants to be there."
He'll get the sense of 'being there' thanks to Sean Noonan, who usually takes pictures of corporate events and on college campuses. As he gets ready for the next family to get settled, he explains he got the idea to take portraits after reading e-mails from a high school friend who was serving in Iraq. "He would only very occasionally get access to e-mail, but when he did, he always spoke about his troops. There were service-members who had children being born, going through milestones, graduating from kindergarten, being in dance recitals, and not being able to see those things. They wished they had more of that sort of thing."
"Now obviously I can't do every event that happens to come up," he admits, "but hopefully gathering some folks here will go a little ways toward getting that coverage."
A local service group loaned Sean Noonan its meeting hall to set up his makeshift studio. He collected enough donations to pay for printing the portraits, and postage to get them overseas in time for Christmas.
Susan McManis sends a lot of mail to her husband in Baghdad. She and her daughter Hayley talk to him on his Internet phone a few times a week. And they e-mail back and forth a lot. But having this portrait to hold in his hands, McManis says, will mean a lot to him. "I think it's just a chance for him to feel a little bit of home. We dress up, we make it special, it feels more like Christmas. He gets to see Hayley, how she's growing. It's just our way of saying, we love you, we miss you, this was a nice way to do that."
There are many special programs underway around the country right now to support U.S. troops and make their holiday brighter: classrooms of young students making cards to send to their local guard units deployed overseas… community Christmas care-package campaigns, with armies of volunteers in Santa hats, stuffing boxes full of deodorant, DVDs and phone cards for hundreds, maybe thousands of soldiers.
Sean Noonan knows his portraits won't touch anywhere near that many lives, but he says that's not his goal. "I would do it if there was even just one family, if I could make just one soldier's day a little brighter, I would definitely do it. Regardless of what anyone happens to think about the war, the fact is that these guys, and women, are over there, in harm's way, in horrible conditions, and I just felt personally that I had to do something maybe to bring a little comfort."
And it is making a difference. Susan McManis says that when people show their support, no matter how small the gesture, she's amazed at how much that helps her family get through her husband's deployment. "Even just a simple thing, like some people will say to me, 'Your husband's in Iraq? Thank him for me. I thank you, too.'" She chokes back tears as she explains, "That little thing makes me very happy. Not a lot of people do that, but when they do do it, it makes you feel really good."