Thank You For Your Service, Sergeant Major

July 03, 2012  •  9 Comments

Sergeant Major Stacey StapletonStacey (Spiff717) - Burgman 650 I recently heard some sad news that got me thinking about the trade of photography, and while I don't normally like discussing personal material on my business site, I feel compelled to write on this particular topic.

As you may recall, in April of this year, I went to Savannah, Georgia for a personal project for OLP (see this post), shooting portraits of the Scooter Cannonball Run 2012 participants.  The project itself was really a dual-purpose trip:

  • Capture moments of anticipation and excitement in what is, in my opinion, one of the most striking ways to create an adventure for oneself that I've ever experienced
  • Participate in some of the excitement that surrounds this event, as I was unable to participate in it this year for a variety of personal reasons.

I recall quite clearly, on "Day 0" of Cannonball (the day before), a man walking up to me in the parking lot of Vespa Savannah, and asking if I was Oz, the guy doing the portraits.  I nodded and he quite excitedly asked where to sign up.  I told him that unfortunately, at that moment, I wasn't taking any more portraits - my primary flash had overheated and it would be quite a while before it cooled down in this heat.  I told him I would be resuming portraits at the hotel, so get in touch with me there.

At the hotel, I realized I didn't have sufficient model releases, so I made my way to a Kinko's and got some more duplicated.  By the time I came back, the Savannah sky had opened up, letting loose what felt like gallons of warm, unanticipated rain.  I groaned to myself in my rental car, got irritated, unloaded my equipment, and just as I prepared to call it a day, the showers backed off and left a gorgeous sky background for me to shoot against - moody with waterlogged clouds with sunlight stabbing through, slivers and blades of light that can either destroy your metering or give you just that extra je ne sais quois, that pop.

The excited man, a Burgman rider, and his wife almost immediately approached me, the moment they caught me outside.  My lights were cooled, in partial deconstruction, and I cautiously looked at the sky then decided to risk it.  It's just camera equipment.

"Can I fill out one release for the two of us?" the man asked, and I nodded, fidgeting with my Pocketwizards.  He signed his name, and his wife's...  Stacey Stapleton.  I took his form and smiled at him, and he tossed back a tentative grin that reminded me of what I had felt before when I participated in this event:  excitement.  Adventure.  Anxiousness.  The hope for rediscovering yourself.

We forcibly dragged his steed, often considered a land boat in such social spheres, into position around the lights, and he stood in front of the bike, hesitant, unsure what to do and where to stand.  At this point I had been on for what felt like the whole day, but his enthusiasm was contagious and I was back to go-mode, and walked towards him as his wife Maria wheeled her Majesty behind my lights, waiting for her turn.

I took a moment to observe his frame, his stance, next to the bike, and suggested a slight lean against the saddle, bike on its side stand.  Hand on the handle bar.  Look up, but tilt your forehead slightly towards me, jaw out a bit, yes - that's it.  Now pretend like we've known each other for more than approximately 38 seconds, as if we've shared a beer and - yes, that's it.  Right.  Good smile.  That's the look we're going for.  Let's keep going.

In the background, I could feel Maria smiling as Stacey's shoulders loosened and he fell into place.  A few shots in, post review, it was clear that I had gotten what I needed and felt comfortable with putting my name against given the slowly mounting audience and line.  Stacey smiled politely and thanked me, and we pushed his bike aside to make room for Maria.  Bill, another Cannonball participant, quickly leaped in with a hammy pose I had to capture, and then it was all about Maria.

What I didn't realize between these two, is that Sergeant Major Stacey Lee Stapleton was a 24 year veteran of the US Army Special Forces, and was battling cancer.  Time was waning down for him, and he and his lovely wife were taking this challenge on to gain a new perspective on life.

I was informed yesterday of Stacey's passing, and couldn't help but tear up as I learned of his circumstances.  They hit home for me as a son of a cancer survivor as well as one who has fallen to the disease, but also in that you sometimes never know, as a photographer, what exactly it is you're capturing in those few precious moments you enter and leave someone's life.  Sometimes you capture the people you know, and you get to watch their lives unfold over time and continue to watch them grow.  Sometimes you see a person for a few minutes and that's it.  The light they reflected from the world is sent to a sensor, digitized and written at 30MB/s, and the next time you see their face is when you edit the file.  This may also be the last time they are in your life.  

Life doesn't stop for them, though, even though your moment with them may be over.  It keeps going, an adventure (as my friend Rich Glass would say, adventure is great discomfort told at leisure).  We will all touch lives in ways we may not know or understand, and those lives may in turn touch others, and so forth.  Stacey let me in to that moment with him for a few, and I would like to say I did not take it for granted.  It added to my enjoyment of the task I had set out for myself, and the sense of accomplishment I had coming out of this highly personal project of mine.

I sent Maria the portraits of Stacey as soon as I heard the news and was able to access the original files.  She mentioned she was going to display them at his Bon Voyage party, and the Cannonball experience was the first time he had truly been happy in a while.

Stacey left us with some words, after Cannonball:

Saying that I saw the country I served is an understatement. The reason I saw it was because of the people in this country. Without all of you, this would have never happened. Before, every thing I ever saw in my life always took me back to a place that it reminded me of. A rock face, Somalia or Afghanistan. A bottle on the road would be Honduras or Bosnia. You do so much in the name of freedom that it is actually the work of freedoms memories that confine you to just remember that moment, no matter what you are seeing.

Till now. Now sand beneath my boots will remind me of AZ, NM or California. A rock face won't take me back to a fire fight, it will take me to Box Canyon. This ride and all of you as you followed us have hit CTRL-ALT-DEL on my soul and rebooted my heart and mind to be present in my country, in my home and in my life.

And before I tear up again, everyone's comments and excitement was the best part of it all. I have never felt so loved. And I wore the very boots, that I have been deployed in for the last many years. The same soles on them have landed on nefarious ground. And those same soles, brought me home and across the land of my home

Thank you, Sergeant Major Stacey Lee Stapleton, for letting us share in you experience.  You have had an adventure, and a journey.  It was an honor to take your portrait.

Ride on,


Steve Paulson(non-registered)
Thanks for the tribute of a dear friend OzLang!
I headed up our Burgman club's sponsorship for the Cannonball Run 2012 for Stacey and his wife Maria.
They were truly an inspiration to all they met. Rest in peace Spiff717 my friend and riding partner.
Hope to see you Oz in Virginia Beach April 21st 2014 for our Scooter Gumball Rally to Honor Stacey and Maria's ride Cross Country. The Cannonball changed their rules to eliminate larger scooters so to keep her promise to her husband Maria will ride the Scooter Gumball Rally 2014 Cross Country in his honor.
Randy Hays(non-registered)
On the second day of the Cannonball, I totaled my scoot and severely injured my foot. Since I was heading west anyway, I continued the Cannonball in a support vehicle. With as much as he was dealing with in addition to the rigors of the Cannonball, Spiff made sure I was OK every day. What an honor it was for all of us to share this magical week on the road with him. RIP Spiff.
Michelle Kitchens Taylor(non-registered)
I have just learned of Stacey's death. His sister and I were friends when we were young. I remember him as an annoying little brother that she dearly loved. I did not know him as an adult Stacey Lee Stapleton but his words reflect what a respectable man he had become. What wonderful words can come from someone that loved his country.
Elaine Bowen(non-registered)
What an incredible man he was. Stacy and I graduated together in 86 and we was such a nice guy in school. I want to say thank you Stacy for being so courageous through your battle with cancer. Thank you Oz for the great article. R.I.P. Stacy Stapleton.
Daniel Ray(non-registered)
Stacy and I went to school together , it is just not fair for him to be taken so young. Thank you for the pic and they kind words you put up. In a moment of sadness it is a blessing to have a touch of kindness for all of us that knew him God speed to you stacy !
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