This is the first in a series of profiles of young men who successfully navigated adolescence, academia and adversity to become interesting and productive citizens of the world.  Their stories of what worked for them can offer inspiration to our sons as they contemplate their future, and to parents as we try to guide them along the way. GCP contributor Kareema Pinckney brings us Vernon’s story.


Professional photographer Vernon Young Jr. is a visual storyteller who uses his photographic skills to capture the most intimate moments of life.

Much of his work depicts his love for people and the human condition.  His passion for photography makes him sensitive to the beauty that is all around, capturing the essence of each subject in every session. He loves his work, and is thrilled to be able to devote so much of his time to pursuing his passion.

Vernon never thought joining the military would be key to his finding his passion and following his dreams.

Twenty-seven year old Vernon is a native of Pittsburgh, PA.   As a child he lived with his two parents and six siblings in a low-income housing development.  He witnessed other family members’ struggle with addiction, friends’ deaths, and felt the stress of limited resources.

It wasn’t until his parents decided to move the family to the South Side of Pittsburgh and regularly attend Lighthouse Church that his life would change forever. Vernon explains:

“I hated moving at first, but I now know it was a greater plan for my life. This move opened my mind and my heart to be influenced in ways that I had only dreamed about. With the clarity that I received from church, I was able to get through some of the more difficult decisions in my life.”
Vernon’s first love was football, and he nurtured childhood dreams of pursuing a college scholarship and one day entering the NFL.  However, he ultimately determined that he was more interested in attending college for business rather than pursuing a sports scholarship. But the daunting financial obligations of college convinced the young man to follow in his father’s footsteps and serve in the U.S. military.

Vernon’s belief that the military was his best option didn’t eliminate his skepticism about what he was getting into.  He notes,
“I thought these wealthy congressmen were sending young people to be killed for a war I knew nothing about at the time. I was uneducated about the methods of war, the tactics we used as a country and why we were in war at the time. “

However, it wasn’t until Vernon was exposed to photography in the Air Force that his perspective drastically changed.  “I wasn’t supposed to be a photographer in the Air Force. I was actually selected to be a services apprentice.” In his third week of training  he required emergency surgery, and was switched into the photography unit during his recovery.  He was quite happy about the switch.  “I felt this was a blessing in disguise because I wanted to be a photographer, not a cook.”

Vernon quickly discovered how much he loved photography, and that he had a real talent for it. In 2008, he was selected to Syracuse University’s S.I Newhouse School of Public Communication’s Military Photojournalism program, which is designed to equip military photographers with the tools necessary to document high level missions. 
Through his military service Vernon was able to express his love for storytelling through photography. He learned how to look for the emotions in his shots, and take the shots in difficult mixed lighting situations.  Vernon currently serves in the U.S. Air force as a full-time photographer.  He also takes time to use his gift to capture intense heartfelt moments outside of work, which can be seen here.  

Vernon is proud of his decision to join the military.   “If I knew then what I know now, I would do exactly what I did. I’ve gained experience with some of the top professionals in the world, received a college education to further my ability to complete my mission, and am able to spend a lot of time with my family. The military has enabled me to learn, become passionate about my work and improve my overall quality of life.”

Vernon further advises young men that when considering the military or any important decision, to always make sure you have a plan.

“If you go into a situation without a plan, you plan to fail. I would advise a young man to join the military to learn to serve first and then to achieve his personal goals in finances, networking and education. The military has set my priorities straight, while some of my friends never got around to developing a healthy balance in their lives. If one is afraid to join because of war, one must realize there are just as many murders in the U.S. as there are deaths in the war.“

For Vernon, joining the military yielded wonderfully positive results.  Have you and your sons considered this option? Should parents be concerned about preparing our sons to go to war in order to give them an opportunity to advance their education?  Or do you feel that the potential benefits outweigh the risks?   Have any of your sons had great educational experiences through their military service? GCP wants to know!