The interiors of American veterans’ cars reveal the enduring toll of modern warfare

The interiors of American veterans’ cars reveal the enduring toll of modern warfare

Drive out of Fort Hood, the sprawling military base in Texas, and you’ll spot a road sign: ‘You survived the war, now survive the roads.’

It’s one of the great ironies of modern warfare – soldiers are often in as much mortal danger at home as they are in a warzone. ‘And, for veterans home from war, the vehicle is a very dangerous place,’ says the American photographer ML Casteel.

Casteel was at a ‘strange intersection’ of his life. He had returned from a spell living in Alaska to move back in with his parents in Asheville, North Carolina. ‘I needed a job, and was willing to take anything,’ he says. He accepted the first opportunity that came along – as a parking valet for a local military veterans hospital.

From the series American Interiors, by photographer ML Casteel

Photography: ML Casteel. Courtesy of Dewi Lewis Publishing

The job taught him a stark lesson. ‘For veterans, war brushes up into everyday life,’ he says. ‘It nestles amongst other problems. It creeps into the most mundane experiences. And, for some reason, those issues manifest themselves very starkly in a veteran’s car.’

For the next seven years, he would greet thousands of veterans, take their keys and park their car. With a small camera kept hidden in his pocket, and without letting his colleagues see, he would then quickly photograph the interior of the veteran’s car. He took more than 2,000 such pictures, holding the camera beneath the dash so as to avoid detection. ‘It felt like looking into someone’s chest of drawers,’ he says.

After a seven year gestation, Casteel’s clandestine work has resulted in the photobook American Interiors, published by Dewi Lewis Publishing. Casteel photographs have an honesty and intensity that dig deeper than a conventional portrait. They’re small, incomplete studies of trauma and addiction – at once hyper-masculine and deeply vulnerable. ‘They’re pictures of enduring internal wounds,’ he says.

From the series American Interiors, by photographer ML Casteel

Photography: ML Casteel. Courtesy of Dewi Lewis Publishing

He opens the book with some startling statistics. College-educated veterans, on average, earn $10,000 less than civilians. Around one in seven homeless adults have served their country. Every day, 22 veterans take their own lives in America – that’s almost one suicide every hour.

Yet the nature of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often misunderstood. Studies have shown chronic trauma is primarily determined not by what happened in the war, but by how alienated soldiers feel once they return home. As such, the vast majority of veteran suicides are amongst ageing soldiers whom served in more historical wars. Many of the vehicles shown in Casteel’s book belong to veterans of earlier wars – the first Gulf war, Vietnam, Korea, even the Second World War.

The images contain many of the things we might expect – and hope – to find; photos of family, children’s toys, letters from loved ones. There’s often religious iconography or the American flag. Yet they often lie alongside more troubling signifiers – crates of beer, bottles of spirits, cans of dog food overflowing with ash and cigarette butts, pornography, guns and knives, pills and syringes.

From the series American Interiors, by photographer ML Casteel

Photography: ML Casteel. Courtesy of Dewi Lewis Publishing

Many of the veterans Casteel met struggle with addiction, or had compulsive relationships with weapons and firearms. ‘I would park a car for a particular veteran who kept a holster for his gun directly beneath his steering wheel, so he had access to it all the time,’ he says.

Another veteran had a gambling issue. ‘The passenger side of his car was piled high, from the footwell upwards, with scratch tickets. The steering wheel was covered in dust from the scratched-off tickets. I would wash my hands after parking his car.’ Many were alcoholics, or abused substances: ‘One day, a veteran who had been dry for a long time went to the supermarket and drank three bottles of Listerine.’

‘But I couldn’t help but respect them,’ he says. ‘They entered military service voluntarily, they did the bidding of the people that make the wars, and here they are, often decades later, still living with the consequences.’