The U.S. Army is in the process of executing its largest modernization exercise of the year, and a combined team of enlisted photographers, videographers and mass communication specialists is ensuring that images captured at the event illustrate how the Army is transforming for the future fight.
The exercise, Project Convergence 2021, is occurring over six weeks at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, and White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, and represents a capstone experiment to test and refine the most promising innovations in military equipment and technology.
Among the many participants taking part in the experiment are members of the Army’s Combat Camera and Mobile Public Affairs Detachment teams, whose historical efforts to document Army actions – from trainings to actual combat – tell the story of America’s Soldiers in visually compelling ways.
This article takes a look at the Soldiers telling the story of Project Convergence 2021 from their place of temporary duty assignment at Yuma Proving Ground.
Sgt. Marita Schwab, a multimedia illustrator with the 55th Signal Company (Combat Camera) at Fort Meade, Maryland, completed her training at the Defense Information School a month ago. The trip to Yuma is her first mission after switching specialties; she previously spent four years serving as a multichannel transmission systems operator-maintainer at Fort Hood, Texas.
“A lot of people might look at this job and think ‘you’re just taking photos and videos, it’s not that important,’ but I feel like this is just as important as any other job in the military,” Schwab said, explaining that the ability to document and preserve iterative developments in equipment and processes helps the Army understand and assess how it is evolving.
Schwab, age 24, is also excited to be participating in Project Convergence 2021. “It’s cool capturing everything that the military is working on and just seeing how far the military has come in a lot of the things they are doing,” she said.
Schwab was adopted from Haiti at age six and grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado, with seven brothers and sisters. Five of her siblings also joined the U.S. military – four choosing the Army and one entering the Marine Corps – after Schwab opted to enlist.
“I wanted to do something that would build me up,” Schwab said of her decision to join the military for the leadership qualities and responsibilities it would confer.
Schwab also enjoys painting and sees connections between her passion for art and the creativity she is able to invoke through the camera’s lens.
Spc. Timothee Buangala, also of the 55th Signal Company, similarly desired the opportunity to achieve personal growth through a commitment to service. Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, and spent his senior year of high school wrestling and working as a luxury fashion brand model before deciding to join the Army at the age of 17; “I thought going into the military would mature me,” he explained of his decision.
During his time with Combat Camera, Buangala, 21, has traveled to places ranging from Italy to North Africa to Indonesia, once even parachuting into a rice paddy field.
At Project Convergence 2021, Buangala is “looking forward to seeing what’s new and what can improve our fighting chances.”
Buangala recognizes that photos, particularly photos taken for the Army, can have a lasting impact; “my pictures are being used to make decisions or show people what things can happen or how things are working.”
“I have my hand in history in a way,” he said.
Cpl. Andrew Garcia, a combat documentation/production specialist with the 55th, had initially planned to join the Army as a member of the military police, but was shown information on Combat Camera at his recruiting office that shifted his course; prior to that day, “I didn’t even know this was a job,” he said.
Garcia, who is 23 and originally from Los Angeles, has since traveled to exercises in Norway and Jordan, in addition to completing a nine-month deployment to Iraq.
In Norway, he documented an extreme cold weather Ranger training course that involved skiing to remote locations, jumping into freezing water and carving out igloos for shelter – all activities in which he also participated. “I like that type of stuff,” he said.
At Project Convergence 2021, Garcia is editing footage taken of new capabilities to help inform senior Army officials’ decisions on which technologies are best suited for eventual dissemination to broader troops.
“I think the toughest part is probably getting the story and the message across for people that have never seen or have any idea of what people are working on out here,” Garcia said.
Spc. Destiny Jones, age 21, hails from Houston, Texas. She has been in the Army, specifically in the 55th, for three years, deciding to join the armed forces in part to support her family.
Jones describes her role as capturing images and documenting activities, particularly to support Army leader decisions, and enjoys the photography medium thoroughly.
“I’m a jack-of-all-trades, but my favorite is photo,” Jones said. “I like capturing a moment.”
“I enjoy the reaction people get when they see the photos I take of them,” she continued. As to why she prefers photo to video, she said, “I like to tell a story by one photo. That’s all I think is needed to capture anything is just one photo.”
Regarding her role in the Army, Jones clarified that “it’s not just pointing a camera and clicking. It comes with a lot of patience.”
“You need to take time to be in the moment,” she said, noting that the advice applies to her field and to life in general.
Spc. Cody Rich of the 55th joined the Army after growing up hearing about his grandfather’s memorable experiences serving in Army infantry and Special Forces.
“Him inspiring me really made me want to join,” said Rich, who is originally from Lakeland, Florida.
At Project Convergence 2021, “what I’m most looking forward to is the experience and just working with different parts of the Army,” Rich said. “Even seeing the DoD civilian side and how much they put into it as well, that whole experience is really great.”
Rich, who is motivated by helping others, views the most rewarding aspect of being in Yuma as “seeing that our job really matters and how it helps.”
His previous work with Combat Camera has sent him to places as far away as Bahrain and the U.A.E.
One of Rich’s most memorable missions was documenting a Navy Seals training exercise that took place at night and involved flying in a Chinook helicopter.
He remembers thinking at the time: “How many people can say they’ve done this?”
Spc. Kayla Anstey, a combat documentation/production specialist with the 55th, grew up in Sumter, South Carolina, where her father worked as a photographer and her brother participated in ROTC.
When she learned about the Combat Camera occupational specialty in middle school, she felt like it was a perfect fit.
“I got very, very lucky that it was open when I went in,” said Anstey, 23, who was eager to apply her enthusiasm for photography while gaining unique experiences and encountering a world beyond her hometown.
Her experience has not left her disappointed.
“What always wows me is that I get to see what a lot of people aren’t going to see,” Anstey said of her chosen field, which exposes her to a broad array of Army activities. She has photographed the taking apart of large aircraft, the assembly of sewage lines and the execution of Army medical activities, to name just a few.
“Everyone’s always so surprised when they hear about our job,” she said, though she underscored that she sees a clear need for the work. “People are visual learners.”
The trip to Yuma is Anstey’s first time seeing cactus grow in the wild and her first mission since giving birth to her now six-month-old son.
“I’m here for him,” she said.
Spc. Elijah Ingram, 20, is a public affairs mass communication specialist with the 24th Theater Public Affairs Support Element at Fort Bliss, Texas. A native Texan who grew up in San Antonio, he was involved in theater throughout high school and initially wanted to enroll in film school but pursued the military public affairs route instead.
“To do theater, you have to be a storyteller,” Ingram explained. “With whatever job I decided to take, I wanted to be able to tell stories, whether it be my own or somebody else’s.”
Ingram was drawn to public affairs because he thrives on “talking to people, interacting with people, knowing a little bit of who they are, what makes them tick.”
He views public affairs specialists as the “storytellers” of the Army, reaching “the Soldier populace as well as the civilian populace, spreading the Army’s message.”
Ingram likes “seeing the people on the ground who are creating and innovating and really enhancing the Army’s capabilities and the future of what warfare and the defense of our nation is going to look like.”
“Being able to see that and being able to tell that story I think is a tremendous honor,” he said.
Sgt. Jacob Lang, 23, is also a member of the 24th, having switched to the public affairs field after serving as an airborne infantryman and completing a deployment to Iraq.
“For four years, I was running around in the field, in the woods, being dirty and just doing crazy stuff,” Lang said.
Now, he reflected, “I’m able to tell these very beautiful stories.”
Lang, whose hometown is Brackenridge, Pennsylvania, is interested in travel and animation and looks forward to growing his skillset in his new field of work. He is grateful for the diverse opportunities the military has afforded him.
“It was definitely a good choice,” Lang said of joining the Army. “The experience I’ve had, I’ve enjoyed the hell out of it.”
Lang thrives on interacting with others and likes that his work is contributing to the Army’s historical records. “It’s super exciting being able to document this and record history for future generations, for knowledge, for research,” he said.
Lang’s favorite storytelling medium is video. “Video offers a lot of freedom and creativity in how you are putting forth the message and what you are trying to convey.”
He is enjoying the opportunity to interview Soldiers and film experiments at Project Convergence 2021.
“It’s exciting seeing all of the new technology,” Lang said. He believes his photos provide “a better picture as to what technology is being worked on here and how it’s actually going to impact the Joint fight.”
Cpl. Hunter Garcia, 22, a mass communication specialist with the 49th Public Affairs Detachment at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, acknowledges the one-of-a-kind nature of an exercise like Project Convergence 2021.
“Being able to be part of a mission like this is really unique,” Garcia said.
“This is the future of the Army 10 years from now,” he added. “We’re seeing the future of our fighting force.”
Garcia grew up in Needville, Texas. With a father who served in the Army and a grandfather who served in the Navy, he saw joining the Army after high school as a “natural route.”
“I chose this really happily,” he said of his public affairs specialization in the Army.
Garcia sees great value in sharing the work of the Army as well as documenting events for historical purposes: “building products is, I would say, a privilege.”
“So much of history is just forgotten really quickly,” Garcia elaborated. “I think having details, like having information of documentation packages or interview packages or products, is really important for something, especially like this, where they’re doing future technology, where it needs to be archived and it needs to be understood.”
Garcia also enjoys hearing about the experiences of others during the course of his interviews. “Everybody has a story, and everybody kind of relates to each other in some way,” he said.
“If you talk to people and try to get to know them, you start to see these characters develop. That’s one of the best parts of being in public affairs. Because we can see every job, we can see every level. We can see the private who just got out of AIT, and we talk to generals about a 30-year career that includes some of the most elite units in the military.”
“We get to see so much more than most people,” Garcia said.
Pfc. Vincent Levelev, also a mass communication specialist with the 49th, joined the Army after leaving art school and working as a janitor. He then discovered that “you can do art and be in the Army” and decided to enlist.
Levelev, 22, who is originally from Gaffney, South Carolina, describes photography as a “very, very powerful tool. There’s a lot of responsibility about it.”
From documenting honor guard ceremonies to photographing troops leaving for Afghanistan to covering COVID-19 support missions, Levelev’s experiences with the Army have shown him that “everywhere you go, there’s a golden moment at any given second, you just have to be willing to find it.”
Levelev also appreciates the opportunity to share pivotal moments he captures on film with the subjects of his photographs.
“My favorite thing is getting a single photograph of a Soldier – or really any service member – and then seeing that become their profile picture, or seeing them send it or seeing their mom post about it. Just showing people, because we’re in that position to see top to bottom, that everyone has meaning, and everyone has a place in this Army.”
He described part of his purpose at Project Convergence 2021 as capturing images and stories “to show the public why it’s important that their tax dollars go towards advancing technologies. As of right now, of course, it’s a benefit to the military and to our nation’s security, but in 10 years’ time, all the technology we develop here will be used by civilians. It’s not only the future of the military, but it’s the future of American life.”
Levelev is also driven by the desire to relay stories that are important to the Soldiers who make up the Army: “Our whole mission is: How can we tell the public what the Soldiers are doing, tell the Soldiers stories?”
He is thankful for the opportunity to be an essential part of that narrative.
“Being part of the Army’s story will forever to me be the highest honor about being here,” Levelev said.