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Behind the lens of war: Remembering USAF Capt Jimmy Harper

Jessica Manfre Avatar

America’s Combat Camera traces its roots back to the Civil War when photographers produced iconic images of battlefields, soldiers and the devastating realities of war. These images provided a new level of realism and immediacy to the public’s understanding of warfare. During World War I, airmen captured over 18,000 photos. By World War II, the First Motion Picture Unit was established in Culver City, California, where the first Army Air Force Combat Camera units got their start. Fast-forward to post-9/11 and these brave men and women continued to volunteer to go into danger to capture the stories that will be told for the rest of time. Air Force Captain James “Jimmy” Harper was one of those heroic combat cameramen. 

This is his story. 

“Jimmy was a sweet, quiet baby,” his mother, Mary Harper, recalled. “He always observed everything around him. He entertained himself with little cars and blocks. He was about 4 years old when the daycare was closed, and I had to take him to work. My boss marveled at how quiet and well-behaved he was. He always did very well in school, had perfect attendance and did homework before he got home so that he could play outside because he loved the outdoors.”

She remembered how other kids would bring home puppies or hurt animals but for Jimmy, it was always kids in trouble or in need of something. His parents were always making calls to those parents to let them know the kids were safe with them. With Jimmy. 

“Jimmy never mentioned going into the Air Force until his senior year of high school. I begged him to consider college. He was athletic and an amazing baseball player,” May shared. “He just told me he wanted to see the world and didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life but would figure it out in the Air Force. He finished basic training with walking pneumonia.” 

His time in the force influenced countless Airmen. 

“Jimmy was easily one of the most humble men I’ve ever met but equally the one with the most swagger. Every time he walked into the room it was obvious he was the coolest guy there,” fellow Combat Cameraman, Mark Harper, told WATM with a laugh. 

After graduating from high school in South Carolina, Jimmy enlisted in the Air Force. Just a few short years later, America was at war and he was serving with the 1st Combat Camera Squadron. As a photojournalist, his work was exemplary and Jimmy was quickly known as “the” aerial-combat photojournalist with many well-known humanitarian and combat images. 

By 2007, he was being trained at Fort Liberty (formerly Fort Bragg) for a unit assigned to Joint Special Operations Command. After completing his training, Jimmy had numerous deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, and Bosnia. From there, he was sent on humanitarian assignments to Haiti, Sumatra, and Louisiana, to document the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“Both of our last names are the same and we bear a slight resemblance to each other though he is admittedly more handsome,” Mark Harper shared. “Whenever we would deploy to Iraq together all you would see is Harper and Harper next to each other. Everyone would double-take it, asking, ‘How did two brothers get sent to us?’ And then he would always lean forward all serious and say, ‘Well, first off, mom liked him more than me, which is why he went to college and got to become an officer.”

In 2013 Jimmy was selected for Officer Candidate School and became an intelligence officer. 

Over his 22-year career, Jimmy received two Bronze Stars, a Meritorious Service Medal, an Air Medal, two Air Force Commendation Medals, a Joint Service Achievement Medal, and an Air Force Combat Action Medal, as well as the Army’s Air Assault Badge.

“He was so good at his job and it really was not only attributable to his professionalism but his personality and how he connected with people,” Mark explained. “Often when you walk into a combat unit as a photographer, you’re hated. Someone else was bumped to make room for you and they want no part of that. But Jimmy was different, people immediately loved him and felt comfortable with him around. It was special.”

Toward the end of his service after going through a tumultuous divorce, he began dating Maria Lugo and they worked side by side, mentoring young adults in college ROTC.

“I think what led Jimmy to serve is what leads most of us to serve, some deeper understanding that there is so much more to the world than the small sliver most of us are exposed to growing up. Jimmy had a strong desire for adventure and exploration,” Lugo explained. “He always wanted to understand how things worked and the why behind everything. I think the unknown of serving and where it would take him mixed with his no-fail attitude was what made him most successful in his military journey.”

Lugo shared that when he talked about work, it was never about numbers but the humans he was actively mentoring. He often stood up for others and went out of his way to fix problems. 

Though Jimmy wasn’t in an active combative role, he was right in the thick of it all. Years of capturing the worst of humanity through his various lenses led to his marriage ending and his being described as “lost.” But Mark believes there was more at play than anyone realized. 

“We were talking during the pandemic when he brought up the VA not doing enough for veterans with TBIs. I thought it was really odd that he brought it up and I asked him about it. That’s when he told me he’d been ‘blown up’ during our Iraq deployments,” Mark shared. 

Jimmy downplayed the potential TBIs during their conversation, admittedly indicating it was part of the job. He was also adamant on avoiding being prescribed drugs and “hoping” it would get better. He ended the conversation telling Mark how good it was to hear his voice and how much he’d missed having that connection to his military family. 

“Honestly, I think after he lost his marriage and retired, his sense of direction was gone,” Mark reflected. “I didn’t realize the impact of what we experienced through the camera and how it all affected us. It took me years to feel it myself.”

They made plans to meet up but then Jimmy moved. Things kept coming up and Mark found himself ready to just pay for his trip out to see him in California when the phone rang. 

“I got a call from another one of my sergeants at the time who went on to become a chief in the Air Force, who had a real special connection with Jimmy as well. And he said, ‘We lost Jimmy.’ I’m like, what is that? What do you mean, we lost him? What does that mean? And then he just started crying and then I started crying. I figured it out.”

August 27, 2022, was the day that Jimmy took his life. He was 42 years old. After his death, the old squadron got together on a Zoom call to reflect on Jimmy and his impact on all of them. 

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org. The world is better with you in it!

“There were 40 of us and we had a tragedy counselor on the call, too. Honestly I think we didn’t really want the counselor as much as we really just wanted to share our stories of Jimmy,” Mark reflected. “So where do we go from here? We mourn the Jimmy that we lost and remember who he was.”

For his mother and Lugo, it was a loss that left a wound forever unhealed. 

“There was a big hole in my life after losing James, he was so strong and as cheesy as it sounds – my go-to, fix-it person. His presence gave me strength and confidence in a lot of ways, but he taught me that there is an answer to everything even if it doesn’t come easy,” Lugo shared. “The impact James had went far beyond a small circle. I’ve received so many messages about how his presence and influence had a lasting impact on people’s lives, whether it be through mentoring they received or just admiration for the person he held himself as.”

As for Memorial Day, for Jimmy’s family and friends, it’s everyone’s “alive” day; a time to reflect on those we’ve lost, honor them and use the time we have to live well. 

“He was an amazing father and it hurts me deeply that I didn’t talk with him about the horrific evils of war that he faced. He always protected me. When he received his first Bronze Star, I heard him tell the reporter that he didn’t want his mom to know what he went through,” Mary shared. “The one thing he did tell me about war was the deep feeling of comfort that he felt each time his team would return from a mission and see the American flag in the distance.

With all that’s going on today, I can’t listen to the National Anthem without tears.”

Remembering U.S. Air Force Captain James “Jimmy” Harper, January 24, 1980 – August 27, 2022. Never forgotten.