In Colfax, Echoes of Another Conflict

A photographer who covered the war in Iraq appreciates how threats can come to seem routine.

COLFAX, Louisiana — Early one evening, I went out for a run. I took a route out by Lake Iatt, passing through acre after acre of logged land, trailer homes and lush green farms. It was an easy out and back, but as I rounded the last corner, I was alarmed by clouds of black smoke that were blowing my way. Explosions crackled in the distance. The sounds put me back in Iraq, where I’d spent a bunch of tours as a photographer, listening to gun battles being fought in nearby towns or neighborhoods.

The detonations were coming from the commercial burn facility just outside this speck of a town. The U.S. military has tens of thousands of pounds of its munitions and waste set afire at the facility every year. And has for decades.

The people of Colfax, as a result, long ago stopped being startled in the way I had been. The explosions — “Like World War III or the Fourth of July,” said one resident — are simply the soundtrack to life in a town of some resolve, considerable poverty and lots of resignation.

In the cool hours of the morning, you can see people, mostly African-American, crossing the train tracks to walk to the Dixie pharmacy that doubles as a coffee shop. 

By midday, though, Colfax is all but a ghost town, with the exception of Darrell’s restaurant, the only eatery left in town after the other one closed when the owner died of cancer a couple of months back. With the late afternoon, there comes some relief from the heat.

People reappear.

There are men walking with lawn mowers hoping to pick up work. Down a dead-end street, I found two boys breaking a horse in a vacant, rubbish-strewn lot between trailers. The kids were trying to stop the horse from rearing up, though every time it leapt back on its hind legs, the boys’ smiles gave away their joy.

Other boys played ball on the street, refusing to believe a news organization such as ProPublica was visiting their town. When I explained the story I was covering, most of them shrugged and asked if it would be on Instagram. 

There were folks fishing, too, including an extended family at Lake Iatt. I asked about the booms and toxic smoke, but Caroline Harrell, the matriarch of the three generations that had rods in their hands, evinced little worry or anger. People just don’t seem to notice. Besides, a fishing competition had started.

I listened again to the sounds of Colfax, and once more was taken back to Baghdad, 7,000 miles away and a couple of lifetimes ago. There, I’d try my best to relax, drinking a beer and having a smoke on an American base or in a news organization’s bureau. Gun battles would break out nearby, but they didn’t register as sounds of fascination. They were part of life there at the time. The danger wasn’t urgently pressing; there was, it seemed, no cause for alarm.

This story is part of a series examining the Pentagon’s oversight of thousands of toxic sites on American soil, and years of stewardship marked by defiance and delay. Read more.

Ashley Gilbertson is an Australian photographer whose work has captured the experiences of soldiers in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2004, Gilbertson won the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award from the Overseas Press Club for his work during the Battle for Fallujah. In 2014, Gilbertson’s series of photographs, “Bedrooms of the Fallen,” was published in book form by the University of Chicago Press.

Design and production by David Sleight.

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