BALTIMORE, Md. — Chris Fowler stands in the basement of an old factory in Baltimore that is now converted into offices. He straightens his tie, tucks in his shirt, and takes a deep breath while looking into the mirror. He straightens his shoulders, smiles and looks directly into the lens of a camera.
A shutter clicks and a flash of light illuminates the room.
This will be the first time Senior Chief Petty Officer Fowler is having his picture taken since retiring from the Navy.
“What am I going to be when I grow up? I don’t know,” the 53-year-old veteran says jokingly with a smile.
Fowler dropped out of college in 1995 to join the Navy and has never looked back. He always felt that standing up for his country was his calling. But standing in the studios of Vickie Gray Images, Fowler doesn’t know what the future holds. His retirement from the Navy will also mark the first time in more than three decades he’ll have had to apply for a job.
“It’s a chance at a new beginning and how often do people get that?” Fowler said.
Each year, an estimated 200,000 men and women transition out of the military either for retirement or because their time to serve has ended. That transition back into civilian life can often be a complicated process filled with anxiety, but a nationwide nonprofit known as Portraits for Patriots is helping to ease some of those service members into civilian life.
“You could boil it down to a ‘thank you for your service.’ It’s a way to give back,” explained Eric Stegall who founded the group a few years ago.
To date, Portraits for Patriots has helped coordinate photography sessions for hundreds of veterans nationwide. Stegall estimates the nonprofit’s national network of volunteer photographers turns out thousands of headshots a year for service members transitioning away from the military.
The goal is to give people a headshot they can use without their military uniforms on for LinkedIn, resumes and cover letters in hopes of finding a job after leaving the military.
“The vast majority of these people wouldn’t think of getting a headshot themselves,” Stegall added.
The entire operation is made possible through donations of studio time by photographers like Vickie Gray. Gray is one of the more than one hundred volunteer photographers across the country who volunteer their time to help provide transitioning service members with headshots.
“My goal is to give them a flattering portrait and I want them to walk out of here thinking, ‘So this is me? This is what people see?’” Gray remarked.
“We’re a one soldier family and we come together to help each other,” said Caleb Barrieau, another volunteer photographer who is a part of the program and also serves in the military.
For those who get their picture taken, the entire experience is about more than a photo. Gavin Aydelotte is a captain in the Army and is leaving the military next year. He sees his headshot as a way to open new doors for the future.
“For me, it’s part of a successful transition. It’s scary, you’re jumping into the unknown, but as long as you put one foot in front of the other, it’s a step in that direction,” Aydelotte said.