Through the lens of a Marine

UB photographer and student veteran wins scholarship


Julian Chinana recalls carrying a dead body on his back while stranded in the mountains of Afghanistan.

There was no helicopter in sight because of the dark skies. Chinana knew he couldn’t leave the body. The Marine hauled a corpse through the battlefield, back to safety, while dodging flying bullets.

Chinana, a junior photography major and U.S. Marine Corps veteran, is the winner of the 2014 General Albert James Myer and Private Harison Baird Veterans Scholarship and one of 330 student veterans at UB.

UB is helping student veterans, like Chinana, cope with their memories of war by providing a college education.

In order to enhance the educational experience of UB students who have served or are serving in the U.S. Military, SFC Robert Gilbert established this scholarship to provide financial support to veteran students in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Chinana stood out as the 2014 recipient due to his outstanding academic accomplishments as a photography major as well as his impressive service achievements, said Millie Chen, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

“The marines is the worst time and the best time of your life,” Chinana said. “It’s nice that someone recognizes the need for veterans to go to school and that we have financial needs also.”

The vicious battle scenes inspired the 30-year-old to pursue photography at UB.

He was intrigued by the ability a photo has to capture his memory of a time and place.

“My landscape photos give off the feeling of being alone and being able to ground your environment.” Chinana said. “You’re reminded that you’re this tiny thing in this huge world.”

Chinana’s interest in photography began in middle school with his desire to relive memories and create a visual interpretation of his thoughts.

Now, most of his work focuses on the military and the stress of heading into combat. They open a dialogue on a difficult subject that few people have been able to witness from a direct experience, according to Lawrence Brose, Chinana’s art professor.

Drawing, painting and photography help Chinana take the images in his head and put them on paper.

“It doesn’t help solve problems, but it stops the memories from eating at you,” Chinana said.

The most difficult part about being overseas was experiencing the loss of other Marines, like the one Chinana carried to safety in Afghanistan.

“The whole point of fighting is to protect each other and when you go out there and someone dies, you take it hard because you feel like you couldn’t do your job,” Chinana said.

Regardless of the horrid images, Chinana wanted to join the military ever since he was a child.

“When I was younger, I saw broadcasts of Desert Storm, and I felt inspired to serve my country,” Chinana said. “From then on, I knew I wanted to join the military after high school.”

He joined a Marine ROTC program at his high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Chinana served in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2002 until 2006, most of the time as a Sniper.

Other aspects of the Marines weren’t as gloomy, Chinana said.

He developed strong ties with other Marines through their “brotherhood,” like Anthony Moran, a friend of Chinana who served for 12 years.

Moran and Chinana spent a lot of time together during Chinana’s four years of service, Moran said. They didn’t have a lot of resources and sometimes slept on cots in the middle of the desert.

“You work with these people and live with them and they become your family,” Chinana said. “We all helped each other get by each day.”

Before heading off to war, Chinana made a checklist of personal goals he felt he needed to accomplish as a Marine before he could return home. He successfully completed the list in 2006.

Once back in Western New York, he waited tables until he decided to become a police officer for the Town of Amherst and attend photography classes at UB. He said being a police officer gives him the opportunity to serve his country from home.

Aside from pursing a degree in photography, Chinana has two sons – ages 5 and 2 – who made him look at life from a different perspective.

“Taking care of two little people is crazy,” Chinana said. “Sometimes I still can’t believe that I’m responsible for someone else’s life.”

Chinana raises his boys alongside his wife of seven years, Carissa.

Between school, work and taking care of his family, the busy father doesn’t always find time to sleep.

Chinana works five days a week as a police officer, sometimes including overnight shifts. He said he usually doesn’t sleep the nights leading into his morning classes.

“I was fortunate to have been able to start a career and get an education while pursuing my passion,” Chinana said.

Chinana’s advice to people who plan on going into the Marines is “to remember it should not be for your own personal needs but to help others.”

His comfort in protecting other people is what made him the ideal recipient for the scholarship, said Brose, Chinana’s art professor.

The College of Arts and Sciences Awards Committee reviews and deliberates the candidates’ dossiers, which include their application statement, academic record and letter of support from a UB faculty member, according to Chen.

“Julian has been an outstanding student and I have been deeply impressed with his ability to translate his combat experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq into compelling art that communicates the horrors of war and personal trauma,” Brose said.

Undergraduate veteran students who are studying in a major or minor through the College of Arts and Sciences are eligible for funding. A recipient is selected based on individual merit and financial need. The selected student must maintain a minimum GPA of 3.0. The scholarship is $500 a semester for two semesters.

“Julian is soft-spoken and quiet but he definitely has a wild side to him,” Moran said. “He’s just a great guy.”

Chinana plans to continue his duties as a police officer while finishing his photography classes and sharing his memories in a visual form.

“Everyone at some point will learn that sacrifices become an everyday thing but the life lessons from them will build a depth to a person,” Chinana said.

Chinana has completed his service as a Marine and he plans to continue working for the Town of Amherst, taking photos and raising his sons.