From paratrooper to photographer: Meet the veteran capturing America's gorgeous parks

August 10, 2017 - 9:15 am

Capturing the vast beauty of America’s National Parks is a dream for landscape photographers. Being hired as the official photographer of the National Park Service was Frank Lee Ruggles’ best assignment.

Before Ruggles became a photographer, he was an Army paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division. During his service from 1985 to 1989, he took part in a number of training exercises and was trained to operate in the jungle and arctic terrain.

During one of his jumps into Panama, Ruggles misjudged the height of the tall elephant grass beneath him and landed on his head. It was one of 10 concussions he suffered while on active duty. Eventually, those jumps took a toll on his body.

“I had 53 really good jumps with the 82nd and one really bad one,” he said. “And it ended my military career.”

Ruggles did not realize, however, how much he would miss his time in the service.

“So when I got out of the military, I moved to Charleston, South Carolina to try to be a civilian and I had no idea the giant hole that was going to be in my life that came from not serving anymore,” he said. “It was a horrible thing.”

Ruggles tried different jobs, from treasure diver to bouncer to member of a rock band.

So how does a grunt become a photographer?

“Like all good stories, I met a girl,” he said with a laugh.

The woman was a recent photography school graduate and on their second date, they went around Charleston taking photographs. “And I had never had any interest in photography,” Ruggles said.

When they were done, they went to her apartment’s homemade darkroom to develop the photos.

“I took the first picture I had ever made, which was a picture of her,” he said, “and I put it in the enlarger and I shined it on a piece of paper and then I put that paper in the developing tray. And her face appeared in the tray. And at that moment, I fell in love with photography.”

After a few years of working on his photography skills, he was still missing the feeling he had experienced through military service.

“So when I realized that as a photographer I might be able to serve my country in some fashion, I moved to Washington, D.C. and tried everything I could to become a federal photographer,” Ruggles said.

Through hard work, he started to get jobs, first with the State Department as Secretary of State Colin Powell’s photo printer, and eventually with other agencies including the Smithsonian, the FBI, and the Secret Service.

“But the best job came,” he said, “when the National Park Service offered me the position as official photographer for the national parks.”

In the over 120 years of the national parks, there have been only about 10 photographers who have held this position, according to Ruggles' estimate.

He was the most recent National Park Service lead photographer where he served from 2007 to 2011, contributing to the Digital Imaging project. Ruggles was sent to all 50 states, photographing 285 national parks. During his tenure, he captured 80,000 images.

Ruggles’ time as a photographer for the National Park Service began to heal his need to serve his country again.

“And, like magic, knowing that I’m out there protecting my country’s beautiful resources, our natural resources, and our cultural history through photography, all of a sudden that hole closed up,” he said.

Even though he was shooting photos instead of a rifle, he said, “I still feel like I’m contributing. And I think that’s something I want other vets to know that that is, at least for me, that was the secret.”

Having a background in the military was perfect for his career in photography, Ruggles said -- because serving in the military makes people tougher and more disciplined.

Being a paratrooper helped him when it came to rappelling, rope work, and roughing it in the backcountry while on photo assignments.

Ruggles just completed a 79-mile solo hike across Death Valley, “and I know for a fact that I couldn’t have done that if it wasn’t for a military background,” he said. “For the discipline of planning out the mission, so to speak, and the execution according to my plan. And getting through the tough spots when you don’t think you can go on."

"That’s what the military really does for you,” he said.

Ruggles is currently on a national tour for his new photography book “Chasing Light: An Exploration of the American Landscape.” He says 15 percent of the profits from his book sales go toward the National Park Trust, supporting the Kids to Parks Day program.

This story was originally published in October 2017.