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Local photographer honored for taking free portraits of elderly veterans

NORMAN, Okla. - Photographer Jessie Newell has seen many things through the lens of her camera, but it's sacrifice and bravery that she sees when she photographs elderly veterans free of charge at Norman Veterans Center.

"They've done so much for our country, I live in the greatest nation on earth, and I'm a photographer, so why not give back to them?" Jessie said.

Jessie owns Bird Nest Baby Photography in Shawnee, and she travels on her own dime with her camera to give back to veterans.

She poses each veteran differently, perhaps with their hands on a flag, or by asking them to salute.

"I don't do it for them to thank me, I do it so I can thank them," Jessie said.

The daughter and granddaughter of veterans, Jessie has taken nearly 200 portraits of our nation's heroes so far.

"I don't know where she gets all the energy," said WWII Veteran Antone Lackey, whose portrait features a hat like the one he wore back in 1946 with the First Cavalry Division Headquarters Troupe.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to a 17-year-old kid," Lackey said.

When the veterans see their portraits, their eyes light up as they recount heroic war stories from decades earlier.

"We'd radio back positions and every once in a while we'd get shot at," said 93-year-old Field Artillery Staff Sgt. Curtis Fatheree, remembering the days he flew a plane in both WWII and Korea.

101-year-old Navy Chief Allen Vann tells of being a torpedo man in a submarine without any ammunition on December 7, 1941, as bombs hit Pearl Harbor.

Chief Vann says it wasn't until three weeks later that the ammunition arrived.

"While we were out on war patrol, we engaged the enemy, we sank several ships," he said. "We had a lot of fun and saw a lot of action."

Chief Vann also had his portrait made by Jessie and was there to help surprise her with a $400 Pay It 4Ward award from First Fidelity Bank, which Jessie immediately handed back to Rob Arrington, the Norman Veterans Center Administrator who nominated Jessie for the award.

"Well, I would like to pay it forward and give this back to them to get whatever they need for these veterans, because I don't do this for money," Jessie said.

"We seriously thank you so much for all that you've done for our families and our veterans," Rob said. "She just pours herself into it and never asks for anything in return, it's just pure generosity on her part."

The $400 that Jessie gave back is being used to print and frame the pictures of the veterans, which will be on display at Norman Veterans Center.

"If you see a veteran, stop and thank them for their service. They've sacrificed so much for us, so many people have given their lives for our country," Jessie said. "Ask them for an autograph, pay for their lunch, do whatever you can to honor their service. And teach your children so that they can carry that forward."

Pay It 4Ward is sponsored by First Fidelity Bank.

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