“ I believed it was important for me to take photos and capture moments of bravery even if I had died doing so." — U.S. soldier and war photographer Elisha Leo Dawkins
Finally, Elisha Dawkins is a citizen of the land he loves.
But what a saga — what a travesty on several fronts — it was for this 29-year-old Miami-raised war veteran to get to where he is this Fourth of July.
A veteran of tours in Iraq and Guantánamo, Dawkins risked his life to chronicle as an Army and Navy photographer the extraordinary challenges faced by his fellow soldiers. He was considered one of the best documentation specialists in the military during both his deployments.
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But a fact about his life that he didn’t know — his birthplace was the Bahamas, not Miami-Dade, as he grew up thinking — put his freedom and future on the line.
He went from risking his life for this country and being honorably discharged twice to being criminally prosecuted and thrown in jail for almost three months in 2011 by the government he served.
He was treated like a criminal over what he wrote in a passport application — a felony charge that could have sent him to prison for 10 years; he also faced deportation.
He would have plenty of reasons to feel bitter about what happened to him, but this remarkable man has nothing but words of gratitude for everyone, including those involved in his prosecution.
He won’t talk about his arrest at his home in Jacksonville in 2011 and his time in federal custody, some of it spent at a Miami detention center.
He only wants to look forward now.
This holiday is a far stretch from the Independence Day he spent in federal detention.
“July 4th, 2014 will be an emotional and heartwarming experience,” he told me via email. “I am an emotional being. I may cry! Remembering the countless number of brave men and women who fought tirelessly for this country, and I am alive and here to experience it while some died.”
Dawkins wasn’t aware that he had been born in the Bahamas and brought to the United States as an infant. But the U.S. immigration service had targeted him for deportation, along with his mother, when he was 8 years old. She returned home, but left him to be raised by Miami relatives.
At Guantánamo, he was one of the “most prolific public affairs photographers,” as the Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg described him. He captured intimate images of the lives of war-on-terror captives in the prison camps, of visiting celebrities and fellow soldiers. Before the Guantánamo tour, he had enlisted in the Army and served in Iraq until 2007, when he came home with an honorable discharge.
During his seven years in the military, no one challenged his immigration status, nor questioned his passport. And Dawkins had “secret” security clearance when he served in Guantánamo.
But, thanks to a squadron of supporters, including immigration attorney Carson Osberg of Americans for Immigrant Justice, Dawkins was able to become a naturalized citizen on June 19 — his three-year ordeal over.
“I am still surprised, emotional and excited,” Dawkins said. “It seems so surreal.”
Perseverance, strength, courage and faith in God, he said, sustained him.
“I am so grateful for the many people who stood by me and believed in me,” he added, listing, among many others, U.S. Rep. Frederica Wilson, D-Miami, and U.S. Sens. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Marco Rubio, a Republican, and their staffs, as important players in getting a positive resolution to his case.
He’s now living in Jacksonville, a registered nurse planning to return to college to earn a bachelor’s degree in the health field. He’s hoping to continue to serve others through the prison ministry of a church and to volunteer with groups that help immigrants and mentor members of the gay community in the United States and abroad.
“My wish for this next stage in life is to be a positive role model and [to offer] encouragement to people who are struggling in whatever areas in their lives,” Dawkins said.
He’s already a role model for these divisive, trying times — my kind of hero this Fourth of July.