In 2014, Zach Coco lost is grandfather, who had served in the United States Navy on the USS Rushmore. His passing served as a lightbulb moment for the California-Based photographer, who realized a generation of American heroes were dying without being shown the proper respect.
“[My grandfather] was my hero growing up,” Coco said in an interview with People. “And it was a wake-up call when he died that he was part of an incredible generation that had so much respect for our freedom and without their sacrifices, we wouldn’t be here today.”
In an effort to pay proper respect to his grandfather and his compatriots, Coco began a non-profit called Pictures For Heroes, which has him traveling around the country via money raised by a GoFundMe to photograph veterans. Most of his subjects served during World War II, and Coco is determined to meet as many of these servicemen and women as he can while they are still alive.
“What I’m learning about the war and about our country in the past 100 years is so inspiring,” he said. “Most of them were teenagers at the time and every time I learn about their life history it sounds like a movie script.”
Thus far, Coco has photographed 40 people—the majority in their eighties and nineties. At 105 years old, Ray Chavez is the oldest known Pearl Harbor survivor alive today.
“He was in the Navy Reserves before being called to active duty, and he said if they called him again today he would be ready to go,” Coco told People. “Working as a minesweeper on the USS Condor, he and his crew were searching the waters around the harbor in the early morning hours of December 7. He told me that they had spotted an enemy sub, but the boat he was on had no weapons and was in no position to engage the enemy. They reported it to the USS Ward, who eventually sunk that sub a few hours later, which was the first shot fired by the U.S. during the war. Ray survived that day, where thousands of his fellow sailors didn’t.
“He is living proof that you are never too old for anything—he still goes to the gym twice a week!”
Yvonne Carson-Cardozo and her family were forced to flee Belgium when she was just 12 years old because of the Nazi invasion. Coco told People that several of her family members died in Nazi concentration camps, but Carson-Cardozo, now 89, made her way through Europe and joined the Dutch Indonesian Army, where she worked for the Netherlands Forces Intelligence Services deciphering and encoding military telegrams.
“It’s hard to imagine a smile could exist on a face that has seen so much ugliness,” Coco says of Carson-Cardozo. “I know to be grateful for what I have because of her.”
Ultimately, Coco plans to create a book, which is available for pre-order on the non-profit’s website, of all the photos and stories he has compiled and he is seeking donations to help make his dream a reality.
“I wanted to find a way to give back and preserve their experiences,” Coco said. “This project has changed how I approach life, because our day-to-day issues pale in comparison to what these veterans have been through.”