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Wartime photographer’s work on display in Rio Rancho

For former photojournalist Rick Kozak, it wasn’t the military mission in 2005 and resulting shrapnel wound that led him away from his profession; it was a mission he chose not to go on.

That mission was in 2008, when he decided to pass on an opportunity to go “outside the wire” near Baghdad in a Bradley armored vehicle. That vehicle hit an improvised explosive device “about the size of a Volkswagen,” Kozak said, destroying it and burning alive all inside it.

Rick Kozak and his wife, Elaine, at their Rio Rancho home.

That was the most sobering experience for this recent Rio Rancho resident who, during his long career, won the White House National Photographers Association “Picture of the Year Award” four consecutive years, played horseshoes at the White House with President George H.W. Bush and had assignments around the world, from Argentina and Belfast to Japan, Moscow and South Africa.

One assignment led to his eventual move here, a virtual photo-essay trip along Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica Pier, Calif., in 1996, during Bill Clinton’s “Pulse of America” junket.

You’ll have a chance to see several dozen of his best photos at Rio Rancho’s Loma Colorado Main Library April 2-28 during “Richard E. Kozak Retrospective: Four Decades in Photojournalism.” There will be a public reception for Kozak and his wife of six years, Elaine, at 6 p.m. Thursday, April 5.

“His pictures are always of the unexpected,” Elaine Kozak, a native of Lancaster, Pa., says.

Being a photographer is what Kozak dreamt about since his childhood, when he discovered photography equipment in a trunk from his father’s days in World War II.

“I want to see the world,” Kozak told his father.

He attended Kent State University, but got bored and headed to Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he found “an intense, 2½-year program.”

He graduated and returned east in 1980, soon finding work at the Lorraine (Ohio) Journal. A few years later, Kozak was working for the then-new Washington Times.

When the Times launched a magazine, Insight, around 1988, Kozak headed there.

“I liked the politics of Washington,” he said. “I enjoyed covering political campaigns. I traveled with a lot of different candidates, especially for the primaries.”

Then, Kozak had the opportunity to cover the war in Nicaragua.

“I got hooked on wars,” he said. “They’re totally unpredictable.”

Back in the U.S., he covered events at the White House – playing horseshoes at a picnic there, when he inadvertently hit Bush with an errant pitch that bounced – and worked on a piece about Gen. Colin Powell. Powell later sent a “wonderful letter” to Kozak’s father, then dying from terminal cancer.

Insight, he said, “kinda folded about 2004,” and he was ready for something else.

After 10 years as a freelancer, Kozak got a job with the Army Times Publishing Co., owned by Gannett, and, “Three months later, I’m in Iraq.”

He wound up serving two tours there, covering missions every day, wearing body armor and a helmet.

“I hooked up with the Marines,” he said, of his most-memorable mission, with an offensive on the border with Syria.

He was with a “gunny” (gunnery) sergeant for two weeks, closing in on a mosque as part of Operation Steel Curtain.

Then, he recalled, “This mosque opens up on us – a big group of Al-Qaeda. He gets hit; I get hit – and all hell breaks loose. … I got hit in the face – I saw it coming at me.”

Three years later, Kozak was back in Iraq at Forward Operating Base Apache, near the northeast corner of Baghdad.

A mission he accompanied one June day had been “totally uneventful,” and that led to the military planning a similar mission for that afternoon in Adhamiyah, one of Baghdad’s worst neighborhoods.

Fortuitously, Kozak opted after the briefing to remain on the base to work.

“Ten minutes later, all hell broke loose,” he said, and he soon learned of the Bradley’s destruction and the deaths of the men inside.

“That sent me into a tizzy,” Kozak said. “I was stateside in August; I was in rough shape, and in a deep depression. I was extra-paranoid, was on a three-month leave, saw a shrink. In 2009, I was placed on disability.”

As for the photo exhibit, he said, “I hope (viewers) get an understanding that this is a pretty great country we’re living in, despite political issues and conflicts in the world. We often take ourselves for granted as a country and there are so many great things here – and Americans focus on the negative.”

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