PTSD focus of Pulitzer effort for York Suburban grad

Scott Ostrom, a U.S. Marine and Iraq war veteran living in Boulder, Colo., has battled post-traumatic stress disorder since his return from combat. His struggles have been captured by Denver Post photographer Craig F. Walker in a photo story that recently won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. In this photo, Scott is comforted by a friend during an argument with his girlfriend over the phone. "Sometimes I get into fights. It's not a talking thing for me. I handle it like a Marine, like it's a combat situation," Scott said. "Being diagnosed with PTSD is an interesting thing. ... It means I have nightmares every night. It means I'm hyper-vigilant -- means I'm weird about noises in the middle of the night and lock my doors. It means I have no fuse and if I get attacked, I'm going to kill. ... I don't want to feel this way." DENVER POST - CRAIG WALKER

Daily Record/Sunday News

Soon after Denver Post photographer Craig F. Walker met Marine veteran Scott Ostrom on a hiking excursion, he knew the Iraq war vet would be an ideal subject for a photo story Walker hoped to tell about the invisible wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I thought it was a sure thing,” said Walker, a two-time Pulitzer-Prize-winning photojournalist who grew up in York County.

But just after they agreed to tackle the project together, Ostrom, of Boulder, Colo, disappeared.

“I gave it a couple days and then I called him,” Walker recalled in a recent interview. “And no answer for like three days in a row. I figured he had a change of heart.”

Then Ostrom returned the call.

“He was super apologetic,” Walker said. “He had attempted suicide and was locked up in a mental facility. As soon as he got out, he called me.”

A photo of the long, self-inflicted gash on Ostrom’s neck is one of about four dozen images published by Walker in “Welcome Home: The Story of Scott Ostrom.”

Scott drives to a Boulder bar to meet his girlfriend on April 30, 2011. The stitches in his neck were from his attempted suicide earlier in the week after the couple had an argument. "It spiraled out of control. ... I was so full of rage and resentment. I was mad at myself. I was in flight-or-fight mode. Since I'm a Marine, there is no flight mode. It's fight ... it's kill, kill, kill. Well, I'm not going to kill (her)," he said. Scott said he believes every combat vet struggling with PTSD has a contingency plan. "Every one of us has a suicide plan. We all know how to kill, and we all have a plan to kill ourselves." DENVER POST - CRAIG WALKER

The story recently won the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography, as well as the American Society of News Editors’ community service photojournalism award.

“Walker’s focus on Ostrom showed with clarity and poignancy the invisible costs of war on our military,” an ASNE summation said.

The story can be viewed at the Denver Post website, or on the Post’s staff photo blog.

Earlier this year, Walker was named Newspaper Photographer of the Year in the Missouri School of Journalism’s Pictures of the Year International competition.

The 1986 York Suburban High School graduate also earned a Pulitzer in 2010 for “Ian Fisher: American Soldier,” his photo story about a young Army recruit.

The awards are nice, said Walker, a former freelance photographer for the York Daily Record, but he focuses more on the awareness he hopes they bring about those suffering from PTSD.

“This is a real injury,” he said. “A real, true war injury .¤.¤. whether you can see it or not.”

The struggles of the 27-year-old Ostrom are intimately documented in Walker’s photo essay, from his frequent panic attacks and fights with his girlfriend, to his attempts to find a job and quiet moments with his dog, Jibby.

An image of the man and dog huddled on Ostrom’s apartment floor is one of Walker’s favorites.

“He said, ‘Don’t bother coming by today, I’m just lying on the floor,’” Walker recalled. “I said I’d swing by anyway. It was a tired day. He was doing nothing, and yet it speaks volumes. His dog is so important to him.”

Jibby and Scott lay on the floor of his apartment on Aug. 12, 2011. Scott said he was exhausted, and then went quiet and motionless. Eventually he broke the silence and said, "I'm tired of having bad f------ dreams. I can't take a nap because I'll feel worse. I fall asleep, but it doesn't make it better. Everybody says, 'With time, with time it will all go away.' So I'm waiting." He got up, smoked a cigarette, made coffee and complained about the dirty dishes and his messy apartment. Just as he started cleaning, he said, "I don't have the motivation to do this s---. I don't have any motivation." Scott returned to the spare room, smoked some pot and pulled out his journal from Iraq. While he read, he laughed hard. Then shortly after his burst of laughter, he verged on tears. He put the journal aside and laid back down, Jibby joining him. DENVER POST - CRAIG WALKER

Walker’s nine-month documentation of Ostrom’s life ended in December, when Ostrom checked into a PTSD program at his local VA. He has since been asked to leave the program, although Walker says Ostrom learned a lot about his condition while he was there.

The two still keep in touch.

“I talked to him yesterday,” Walker said recently. “He was having a pretty bad day.”

Several images in Walker’s story document Ostrom’s panic attacks.

“When he was at his worst, it was like I wasn’t even there,” Walker said. “He was so focused on his issue.”

In that way, Walker was able to capture some brutally honest moments. He says he never feared for his or Ostrom’s safety when they were together.

“I never saw him try to commit suicide,” Walker said. “But I wondered what might have happened if I hadn’t been there.”

Scott works on building a fire while camping with Jibby on the Ceran St. Vrain Trail north of Boulder on May 26, 2011. Scott spent the weekend in the woods. "Memorial Day weekend always means a great deal to me now that I'm out of the service. It feels good to be in a space this big and feel as safe as I do. I feel so safe out here. If anything bad were to happen, I would know exactly what to do. I can't say that about daily life. I need to make peace with myself. I know I can get better. I will make peace." DENVER POST - CRAIG WALKER

See Walker’s complete photo story in slideshow form, or in photo blog form.

Read about Walker’s recent Pulitzer-winning moment.

To see the work that earned Walker his first Pulitzer, in 2010, read “Ian Fisher: American Soldier”.

Denver Post staff photographer Craig F. Walker hugs his son, Quinn, as he tells his mother he won his second Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography on Monday, April 16, 2012, in Denver. His story on veteran Scott Ostrom's battle with PTSD has been widely regarded since its publication on the Denver Post's MediaCenter in December 2011. THE DENVER POST -- AARON ONTIVEROZ

About Walker

Name: Craig F. Walker

Age: 45

Occupation: Denver Post photographer

Grew up in: Springettsbury Township

Lives in: Englewood, Colo.

High school:
York Suburban, class of ’84

Family: wife Jamie, son Quinn (11 weeks); parents John and Jennifer live in Glen Rock

About this blog
A picture may be worth a thousand words, but there is often more to say about a great photograph. The York Daily Record's award-winning visual staff offers a peek behind the lens and into the process of capturing, editing and publishing their most interesting photographs, video stories and more.
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