Army paratrooper to Air Force photographer

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Julia Lebens
  • Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Public Affairs

Then-Army Spc. Justin Connaher, now an Air Force photographer at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, stood in line in front of the company executive officer’s desk at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1997. On the desk was a Magic 8 Ball. Full of lots of little bubbles, the broken ball was reliable.

“Am I going to burn in on this jump?” Every other paratrooper in the company would ask before heading out.

“Yes,” was always the answer.

Privates, sergeants, lieutenants — every person asked, every person received the same answer.


Every time, the Magic 8 Ball would tell the paratroopers that their jump would go wrong, they’d burn in, but they never did.

Connaher’s turn came up, and he picked up the ball.

“Am I going to burn in on this jump?”


It was the only time it had ever said that to anyone.

Connaher shook the Magic 8 Ball again.

“No,” the little black ball said.

He shook it again.

“No,” it said for a third time.

Unnerved, he set it down for the next paratrooper. He got on the deuce-and-a-half truck, went to Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, and prepared for the jump.

Hours later, it was dark and he was finally jumping. At first, everything was good; the moon was full, the sky was clear, it was a bright night. He had been waiting all day, he’d done the pre-jump, gotten his parachute, and checked it all countless times waiting in the Lockheed C-141 Starlifter. Now he just wanted to go. Engines roared loudly, he waited for the light to turn green so he could follow the person in front of him out the door into the moonlit night for a beautiful 30 second ride.

But Connaher was falling faster than everyone else. As a small guy, weighing around 130 pounds, that didn’t make sense. Even with heavy gear, he could be the first one out the door and the last to hit the ground. Looking up, he realized something was seriously wrong — his parachute had collapsed, looking like a half-rolled cigarette.

The ground was coming up quickly. From instinct born of countless training repetitions, he pulled his reserve parachute, but no matter how much he pulled, all he did was rip his fingernails backwards. It was a complete malfunction.

“I have this coming, maybe I haven’t lived my life right,” Connaher thought. “I’m 21, I’m about to die; I think I’ve been living my life wrong.”

The last thought he had was some advice his battalion commander would share before each jump — to keep their feet and knees together. So, he locked his feet and knees together, bent his knees slightly, put his hands and arms over his face, and waited.

Then, a terrible crack. The doctors would later say that was probably the sound of his skull fracturing in three places when his head collided with his helmet. In the dark, he was hidden by the tall green North Carolina grass. His lieutenant ended up finding him by accidentally stepping on him.

“I’m being punished by God,” Connaher thought, barely breathing, senses overloaded. “I’m about to die now.” He was in bad shape, horribly disoriented with clear cerebral fluid coming out of both ears.

He woke up partially paralyzed in the hospital, unable to see. Every bone in his feet and ankles was shattered, both knees were broken. Many vertebrae in his neck and back were fractured, and his fourth and fifth lumbar vertebrae were fused, his skull fractured in three places. Right pinky, right wrist — broken. His colon and lower intestine were punctured. Two ribs on the left side of his chest had broken, several teeth had broken, and he had extensive damage to his internal organs.

He could, however, hear the Army doctor who came into the room with his chart.

“Were you at Fort Benning, Georgia, three, four years ago?”

“Yes, sir,” Connaher said.

“I know who you are...,” the doctor said. “You never came back for your appointment.”

During his time at One-Station Unit Training at Fort Benning, Connaher had reported pain and been sent to sick call and then the hospital. The doctor who attended him thought he had a rare disease. Connaher knew if he did, he wouldn’t be able to do what he had wanted to do ever since he was five years old — be a paratrooper. Instead of returning the next week for a test, he ignored the pain.

Now, they’d met again, and the doctor had more bad news.

Lying in intense pain, Connaher discovered he had a rare form of muscular dystrophy called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. It strips nerves of their delicate sheathing, causing muscles to waste away. The more active the person, the faster the nerves die, thus meaning the running and activity of the Army had been destroying him.

Since childhood, Connaher had known he wanted to be an Army paratrooper. When he was 7, growing up in Wausau, Wisconsin, he climbed up a pipe attached to his family’s garage and jumped off the flat-roofed home with a blanket for a parachute. He almost broke his arm, and it hurt more than he had expected, but it didn’t change his dreams.

He grew up reading his grandfather's World War II books, looking at the photographs, admiring his father, a Vietnam Air Force veteran, and his grandfather, a World War II Army veteran. The photos of paratroopers that young Connaher saw excited him. They had different, cooler clothes than the other Soldiers, and got to fly in airplanes. Not only did they get to fly in airplanes, but they also got to jump out of them. As a young boy, he wanted to be a part of something so important and make a difference in the world.

When he turned 17, Connaher enlisted in the Army’s Delayed Entry Program. He graduated from high school, collected his diploma, and days later, headed to Fort Benning.

“Oh my God, how can I get out of this?” Connaher thought, before he even stepped off the bus. Boot camp wasn’t at all what he had expected. In the early ‘90s, away from prying eyes, drill sergeants would rough up recruits - grabbing, throwing, even punching them. It didn’t get better at jump school; a drill instructor broke the nose of a confused Connaher - because he didn’t understand a command, and there was nothing he could do about it.

After jump school was muggy, smelly Fort Stewart, Georgia. He’d signed up to be a paratrooper but was assigned to a heavy anti-armor infantry unit. A remnant of the Cold War, the battalion was disbanded soon after, and Connaher became a truck driver with another non-airborne unit.

Demoralized and stuck at a hot, swampy base doing a job he hadn’t signed up to do, he hated his time there. But noncommissioned officers who’d served in airborne units gave him advice. He could spend a year in Korea and then have a high chance of getting his dream assignment at the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was assigned to Delta Company, Third Battalion, 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

After a year in South Korea, Connaher became a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne he had read so much about in his grandfather’s WWII books.

It was harder than the past units — the standards were higher, he had to be fast and strong, but it’s what he had always dreamt of doing. He went from being a regular Soldier, to a team leader and then to a squad leader. He was trusted with a staff sergeant position as a specialist; he was good at what he did and spent much of his free time learning regulations and reading field manuals to bolster his skills. Connaher was a smart Soldier and a fast learner. At his three different duty stations, NCOs and officers alike told him he had the makings of a sergeant major of the Army.

“I don’t know about that; there’s only one of those,” Connaher thought. But the U.S. Army was going to be his career until he retired, no matter what rank he achieved. There was no Plan B, only the lifelong dream.

And now broken in too many places to count, in a bed at Womack Army Hospital with an additional brutal diagnosis, he realized this may have been a mistake.

He spent nine months in and out of the hospital. He was partially blind and deaf, and would continue to suffer with pain years later. When he got out, he knew that he had to jump one last time. If he didn’t, he’d regret it for the rest of his life, never able to get rid of the fear. He was on a profile - not allowed to run, jump, march, ruck or carry a load. He was supposed to move at his own pace.

Connaher found a loophole. Airborne units don’t call parachuting ‘jumping’ - they call it ‘airborne operations,’ and the doctor had not ticked the box indicating he couldn’t do ‘airborne operations.’ So he stood in line with his equipment, hiding behind taller Soldiers in the dark. Connaher attempted to sneak onto a jump. And it worked, until his platoon sergeant saw him. Shouting expletives, the platoon sergeant brought Connaher to their first sergeant’s office.

The first sergeant, a Vietnam veteran, had Connaher sit down so they could have a conversation. Not a conversation from a senior enlisted leader to a lower enlisted Soldier, but a conversation from man to man.

“What are you doing?” the first sergeant asked.

“I need to jump one more time,” Connaher said. “I’m getting out of the Army next week, and if I don’t do this one more time, I’ll kill myself. I have to do this, or I’ll be afraid of this for the rest of my life until I kill myself.”

The first sergeant sat back in his chair, and said, “Okay... grab your shit, you’re on the job. But if you die, your mom’s not getting your insurance money.”

Connaher did one final jump. He was so scared, his fear beat his training and he watched the ground all the way down instead of watching the horizon, nearly breaking both legs. But he did it, only spraining his ankle. But he walked away, and he knew that in the end he beat the fear that could’ve haunted the rest of his would-be short life if he hadn’t jumped.

A week later, Connaher was no longer a paratrooper in the U.S. Army. His whole life up until this point he had either wanted to be a Soldier, he was one, and he was planning on being one till he retired. His whole identity was ripped from him. The rest of his life would be spent recovering from this one day. He’d have seizures, procedures, pain, Connaher had his final rites said to him twice while in the hospital because of residual effects from his accident.

Working multiple jobs, suffering with pain, health issues, suicidal thoughts, depression, and substance abuse, Connaher had to figure out his identity apart from the Army. There came a point where he was prepared to kill himself. He bought the supplies; he was ready to end his life in the least messy way possible.

Thankfully, he had people around him who cared, and who intervened. They encouraged him, and he went to school and found purpose. Due to his head injury, he had to work a lot harder than the other students. He got his undergrad in communications, double majored in photography and photojournalism and met his wife. He had known her since they were children, but they reconnected at college over migraines of all things. Connaher decided that he was going to focus his efforts and be the best photographer he could. With that goal, after college, he became a photojournalist for USA Today parent company Gannett. For nearly 10 years, Connaher traveled and worked there.

Something felt like it was missing though. He got to do amazing things at Gannett, but he grieved the loss of the dream that was so violently ripped from him. That was, until he found out that JB Elmendorf-Richardson, a joint Air Force and Army base in Alaska, needed a photographer. Not just any photographer either, they needed somebody who could work with an airborne unit.

“I can’t jump anymore, I can’t be an infantryman anymore,” Connaher thought. “But here’s a way that I can be creative and do these new things and use these newer skills that give my life purpose, joy and meaning. I can marry that with this thing that I had originally wanted since I was a little kid and still be a part of that. That belonging, that purpose, that mission that I had always wanted for myself.”

Wondering if he was the person they were looking for, and hoping that he was, Connaher applied for the job.

“It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me and my family outside of marrying my wife and having my son,” he said. “Getting this job, it gave me, personally, a renewed sense of purpose and being.”

Interacting with people, telling people’s stories, taking pictures, and passing on his extensive knowledge to others, these things bring Connaher purpose. His hard work pays off. He’s won Air Force Civilian Photographer of the Year three times, and he’s respected by those who work with him.

In 2016, Connaher went through what he considers a midlife crisis. At this point, he had won Air Force Civilian Photographer of the year twice, and Pacific Air Force’s Civilian Photographer of the year three times. In January of 2016 he had a conversation with an Airmen in the JB Elmendorf-Richardson Public Affairs office, who was of the mindset that the tools are more important than the skills of a photographer.

“I’m going to prove it to you,” Connaher said.

He took a used micro 4/3ds camera and a cheap little prime lens, and he told the Airman that he was going to win Air Force Civilian Photographer of the year for the third time.

“It was hubris, it was arrogance on my part,” Connaher said. “But come the next year, I won again with this little cheapy camera. Some people, they hit a midlife crisis and they cheat on their spouse, or they buy a motorcycle... I went a different way with it… I had to make a change inside of myself, instead of making these external changes.”

Realizing his arrogance, Connaher realized that the good things he did, he did for the wrong reasons. He wanted to be empathetic, do the right things for the right reasons, and help others. He no longer competes in competitions.

“I’m good at what I do, but I’m not the best, I’m not the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Connaher said. “I can help other people, and in that way, I help the Air Force. I help the Airmen that I work with, and that gives me joy.”

A well-spoken, honest man, willing to share his story when asked and a wealth of knowledge in his career field, Justin Connaher is an inspiration and teacher to many of those who work with him.

“The biggest thing I’ve learned from him is that it doesn’t matter what product I bring back from an assignment, what matters is that you learned something from it,” said Airman 1st Class Shelimar Rivera Rosado, a public affairs apprentice at the 673rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs office. “Sometimes shoots don’t go as planned, and we have to improvise, but the most important thing is how we handle the situation.”

“He strives to push us to grow and improve, and always provide valuable advice, critiques, and feedback,” said Senior Airman Patrick Sullivan, a public affairs journeyman who works with Connaher. “He's been an incredibly valuable mentor to me, both as a photographer and in the career as a whole, and the shop is lucky to have him on the team.”

Connaher can be found walking around the public affairs office with his neatly trimmed brown beard, usually drinking from an infantry airborne coffee cup, cracking jokes with those who work there, sharing photography advice with those who ask, sometimes taking photos with his film camera to develop and add to the wall behind his desk. Years after his accident, he still deals with pain from his injuries, but he always has wisdom and advice for the Airman he works with.

“To anyone who’s dealing with a traumatic injury or a family member who’s dealing with traumatic health issues…continue to fight,” Connaher said. “Continue to give every day the best that you can in that day because things will get better.”