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Veteran capturing stories of Colorado soldiers through portrait photography

Cliff Lawson started this veterans portrait project nearly three years ago to give heroes a free professional photo session.

DENVER — You can learn a lot about someone by taking their photo. But some subjects open up easier than others. 

The people through Cliff Lawson's viewfinder are combat veterans -- and many aren't quick to share their stories with outsiders. 

"They tell me stories they wouldn't tell most civilians," Lawson said. 

His secret? Lawson is a veteran himself. 

"For another veteran, they'll talk about some of the experiences they don't ordinarily talk about," he said.

The Vietnam helicopter gunship pilot is a professional photographer now. When he's not on the job, Lawson volunteers his time, equipment and skill to photograph other veterans

He realized this was something his community needed after attending the funerals of a couple of friends

"They were veterans and the photos they used on the stand, they were snapshots," Lawson said. "We can do better than that. I'm a portrait photographer and I thought I could do that."

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Mike Shea hadn't sat for a professional portrait since his last promotion in the Army. 

"I think Cliff's done an outstanding job of taking veterans and putting them in their natural environment," Shea said. 

He's a retired Vietnam helicopter pilot, too. Shea spent eight years with the Marines before being sent to Iraq and Bosnia with the Colorado National Guard.

"Hours and hours of boredom interspersed with periods of stark terror. But that's pretty much the way it is," he said. 

The photos Lawson takes go through hours of editing. He adds medals and honors they veterans earned to the photos, and he'll add helicopters, planes or tanks to the photos if his subjects worked with them during their service. 

"To a civilian, it's just a string of colors," Lawson said about the medals he adds to the photos. "But all these to me means he did some stuff. He had a life."

Lawson hears plenty of stories during these sessions. 

"My biggest regret with this whole project is that I'm not a video guy. I should've been videoing these stories I've heard," he said. 

The story that sticks with him most belongs to another Vietnam helicopter pilot, Lyle Borders. 

"Our job was to find the bad guys, and usually the way we found them was [they] were shot at," Borders said.

He's got stacks of photos from his time in the Army, but Borders hadn't sat for a session like the ones Lawson offers in decades. The story Lawson can't forget is from the last time Borders flew in Vietnam. 

"I was flying down in the U Minh. We had taken some fire, and our normal procedure when we took fire was the Cobras would roll in and shoot up the area a little bit and they'd send us back in to see if we found anything," Borders said. 

When he flew back down to ground level, Borders said something happened that felt like running into a telephone pole "with your eyes closed." 

"I knew I was shot, I didn't know where," he said. "I started looking for where I got shot and when I saw my leg was bleeding. It was sort of a relief, because I thought, 'well this isn't going to be as bad as it could've been.'" 

He quickly realized there was a problem, though. He was losing more blood than he should've been. Borders was flown to a military hospital and he said thanks to the medic on his flight, his life was saved.

"I sort of tell people, 'I bled to death I just didn't die,'" he said. 

But his leg had to be amputated. He said it was hard to feel sorry for himself, though, when he came home for rehab.

"I've got guys missing arms, legs, two arms, two legs, two legs and an arm," he said. "I was in a situation that was so much better than a lot of my fellow hospital patients there."

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The photo he likes most from his session with Lawson is the one that shows his prosthetic leg. 

"You really want to get a picture of who they are," Lawson said. 

He's got no major plans for this project; no art shows or photobooks in the works. He just wants to give veterans a professional photo that conveys the service they've given their country. 

"That's what I'm trying to get at is who is this person. Who are they today?" He said. "Can you look at that face and see that veteran in combat? And sometimes you can."

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