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Bethune High grad featured in war experience project

Posted: January 24, 2013 5:23 p.m.
Updated: January 25, 2013 5:00 a.m.

Alma Hough Jennings, as painted by Matthew Mitchell for the 100 Faces of War Experience.

Bethune native and 1989 Bethune High School (BHS) alumna Alma Hough Jennings, 41, is featured as the 57th face in “100 Faces of War Experience,” an exhibit of the “portraits and words of Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Painter and Pratt Institute alumnus Matthew Mitchell created the 100 Faces project in 2004 after Lance Cpl. Marine Jeffrey Michael Lucey, of Belchertown, Mass., committed suicide. Lucey suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Mitchell said. Always interested in public art that makes people “think and interact,” Mitchell went to meet Lucey’s family amidst thoughts that Americans, and he himself, were so far removed from the war that it didn’t affect them. His belief that American people “don’t quite understand the war experience,” catapulted the traditional idea of an oil-painted portrait into intimate conversations about individual war experiences.

To date, Mitchell has painted a total of 65 people who have experienced the theater of war. 100 Faces has been a featured exhibit in Massachusetts; New York; Minnesota; Connecticut; Washington, D.C.; Ohio; and New Hampshire.

Each sitting lasts about eight hours, Mitchell said. During that time Mitchell gets to know who he is drawing: their mannerisms and their personality, he said. To finish the portrait, Mitchell needs about two weeks, because “this is more than a portrait.”

“The worst you can do is make a soulless painting,” he said. “I want them to fit their personality. There is so much you can get when you are in the same environment.”

Jennings and Mitchell spent one day together in Mitchell’s Amherst, Mass., studio. They painted, talked, had lunch, did a cast of Jenning’s face and took photographs.

After her last deployment to Kirkuk, Iraq, Jennings received an e-mail from her former BHS coach, Patricia Gardner, about the 100 Faces project. Jennings was stationed at Fort Bliss in Texas at the time, but said her cohorts were supportive. After submitting her information, Mitchell notified Jennings that she had been selected and made all of the reservations for her flight and stay in Amherst. The sitting was “unbelievable,” she said.

“I was shocked, because I’ve never seen or knew anyone with the talent that Mr. Mitchell had in his line of work,” Jennings said.

Mitchell was adamant about including people of different backgrounds into his project. He worked with a sociologist to breakdown the make-up of the military into various categories in order to re-create the right proportions in his project. He has also featured civilians who have been to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I tried not to make it personal in any way,” he said about the selection process.

Although he does choose the participants, Mitchell has kept a detailed list of what he is looking for to complete the project on his website.

People are “thoughtful” in a different way with him than they would be a journalist or a family member, Mitchell said; the experience can illuminate things in a different way. It is difficult to find someone who had a job like Jennings’, he said. Jennings entered the army in 1996 as a senior petroleum supply sergeant. It’s important, but not a glorious thing, he said.

“She’s striking in that she seems like a tremendously resilient person,” Mitchell said about Jennings. “Her face comes across,” he said about her portrait.

Growing up in Bethune wasn’t easy, Jennings said. She is the third child of Purdy and Louise Hough, born in 1971. Her father died when she was 3 years old, leaving her mother to raise Jennings and her siblings, Leon Haggins and Pamela Hough, as a single parent. Jennings said her grandparents, Sallie Bell Davis and the Rev. and Mrs. Amos (Minnie Mae) Hough, assisted in her upbringing.

Jennings described herself as an “all- American kid” growing up. She played basketball and softball and was a cheerleader. The small town of Bethune didn’t have much to offer, however, she said. Jennings’ mother and grandmother didn’t believe there was anything “healthy” for her in the area.

“My mom and grandparents wanted the best for me and living in Bethune wasn’t the best. The job rate was low, crime and drug rate was high,” she said.

Jennings lived on Baxley Circle with her grandmother until she was ready to change her life. She joined the Army in Rock Hill in October 1996. Her family still lives in the Bethune area.

Basic training was mentally, physically and spiritually tough, she said. Jennings completed basic training with the Alpha Company 2-39 Infantry Battalion at Ft. Jackson. Her mother visited each Sunday -- the one good thing about basic training, she said. Her mom was her “battle buddy” from day one of her military experience, Jennings said.

After basic training, Jennings went to Ft. Lee Virginia for Advanced Individual Training (AIT) in Charlie Company 263 Quartermaster Regiment. Jennings joined the Quartermaster Corp as a senior petroleum supply sergeant. Since then, Jennings has been stationed at Fort Hood Texas Alpha Company 27th Main Support Battalion, Dexheim Germany Alpha Company 123rd Main Support Battalion, Fort Stewart Georgia Alpha Company 703rd Main Support Battalion, Fort Stewart Georgia Alpha Company 26th Forward Support Battalion, Fort Lee Virginia HHC 262nd Quartermaster Regiment and Fort Bliss Texas HHC 501st Brigade Support Battalion. She has held numerous leadership positions, including squad leader, section chief, platoon sergeant, instructor/writer, AIT instructor and section non-commissioned officer in charge. She has been awarded with a Bronze Star, a Joint Commendation Medal, an Army Commendation Medal (5 OLC), an Army Achievement Medal (2OLC), a Global War On Terrorism Medal, a Non-Commissioned Officer Professional Development Medal (Numeral 3), an Army Service Medal, an Overseas Ribbon (Numeral 3), and a Combat Action Badge.

Jennings is currently a drill sergeant at Fort Jackson’s 3-13th Infantry Battalion, where she helps transform civilians into soldiers. Jennings said being a drill instructor is the best job she’s experienced in her military career.

“The duty of a drill sergeant isn’t about screaming and yelling, it’s about motivation,” she said.

Jennings has been deployed three times and has spent 32 months fighting the War on Terrorism. She and her husband were deployed at the same time until he retired in 2008.

Operation Iraqi Freedom I was Jennings’ first deployment in January 2003. She was stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., with the 703rd Main Support Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, one of the first to “make the push” into Iraq, Jennings said. She was “attached” to the 3-7 Cavalry Squadron, with the Mission Support Team, she said. They traveled toward their objective, which was Baghdad International Airport, encountering attacks from the enemy as they crossed the desert, she said.

“The air was filled with smoke from gunfire and there were dead bodies everywhere,” Jennings said. “Once we made it to the airport we received marching orders to move into Fallujah. After being in Fallujah for a couple of weeks I was called into our headquarters and was told that my husband who was still in 703rd Main Support Battalion had been injured by friendly fire. At this point I was devastated and didn’t know if I could continue to focus and take care of my soldiers.

“Two days later, I found out that he wasn’t injured severely and was on his way to Fallujah to escort the Mission Support Team back to Dogwood. After being reunited with my unit, we received orders that we would be pulling out of Iraq but we still had to return to the airport to recover all of our equipment.

“On the day of the recovery mission, I was riding in the same Humvee with my husband. After we recovered the equipment and started to convoy back to Dogwood, we were attacked by improvised explosive devices (IEDs) which hit our Humvee but didn’t cause any injuries. We deployed back to the states in September 2003.”

Jennings was deployed again in January 2005: Operation Iraqi Freedom III. She was stationed with 26th Forward Support Battalion from Fort Stewart Georgia, 3rd Infantry Division on Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Rustamiyah near Sadr City. Sadr, one of the most dangerous cities north of the Euphrates, according to Jennings, is where she encountered mortar attacks from the enemy on a daily basis. The attacks were normally late at night or early dawn while Americans were sleeping, which made it hard to sleep comfortably because “you didn’t know whether or not you would wake up,” she said.

“One day on FOB Rustamiyah, we had a visit from our commanding general and after his visit with the soldiers he was preparing to leave with his personal security team,” Jennings said. “One of the soldiers that was on the security team was my old platoon sergeant when I was in (the) 703rd. We talked for a while and then they began their move to their FOB. Five minutes didn’t pass and all we heard was a familiar loud bang. The convoy had just left the front gate and got attacked by IEDs. My platoon sergeant was one of the casualties. “

Jennings returned home in February 2006 and was deployed for a third time in late 2009, where she spent one more year in the theatre of war.

This third mission was unique to Jennings, however. Stationed in FOB Kirkuk, Iraq, with the 501st Brigade Support Battalion in Fort Bliss Texas, 1st Armored Division, Jennings was helping Iraqi people to take control of their country. She and her brigade were still faced with mortar attacks, but there was more technology this time around to help them prepare for the attacks, as well as more support from soldiers on the home front, she said.

Although she is thankful that she is alive and well to tell her story, Jennings said she had a hard time readjusting to American life after she returned from her deployment. Not “knowing how to cope,” Jennings said she’s found herself looking for her weapons, unconsciously running from loud noises and waking up in the middle of the night sweating uncontrollably.

Jennings said she never imagined that she would go to combat three times, but that the best feeling anyone can have happens when a soldier steps off of a plane, walks through an airport and the crowd is cheering them on and someone says, ‘Thanks for your service.’” Those words brighten a soldier’s day no matter how they are feeling, she said, especially after being away from family and friends for months or maybe a year at a time.

“‘Some gave all … All gave some.’ These words will always be a part of my life and the memories that I have of the war,” Jennings said in a statement that accompanies her portrait on the 100 Faces of War Experience website.

“After three deployments to the combat zone, not only did I become a part of history, I became a guardian of freedom and the American way of life. Even though there were many days and nights that death was knocking on my door from the attacks that we encountered, my support from my family and friends helped me stay focused and continue the mission…. I am glad to be a part of the most elite service and serving my great country. The things that I have done have really been an experience like never before and I would be more than happy to do it all over again.”


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