Newton County native Cpl. Bryce Burton might be an accidental photographer.
He had never picked up a camera before the Marine Corps, where he learned photography in his on-the-job training. He’s been a videographer for about a year.
And yet his short film on wounded Marine Sgt. Isaac Gallegos, which won this year’s Sgt. William Genaust Award, received a standing ovation at last month’s Marine Corps Heritage Foundation award dinner.
Burton said he was unaware that the film was even going to be screened at the ceremony, where Sen. John Glenn and all the prominent commanders in the Marine Corps were in attendance.
“I look over and the sergeant of the Marine Corps is tearing up,” Burton said. “That was something. I look around and everybody—they’re not clapping for me.”
Burton is referring to Gallegos, whose story Burton featured in his 7-minute documentary.
Like in his film, Burton said all the attention was on Gallegos at the award ceremony.
“All the focus is on him, which is exactly what I wanted,” Burton said.
Beginning and Reawakening
Burton came into the Marine Corps as a graphic illustrator. When a photographer was needed, Burton stepped in to fill a combat photographer position.
“Honestly I didn’t think I was very good,” Burton said. But his officer told him he should continue to pursue photography and that he had a natural ability.
He picked up video production about a year ago, and has been making training videos since.
“Because I’m a new videographer, I didn’t think that my technical skills would have matched up to people who were doing it for a few years now,” Burton said of his recent win. “I was shocked. I couldn’t believe it.”
Before making “Commitment,” Burton was recognized for another kind of achievement—saving a fellow Marine from an incident that may have been fatal.
“I had a Marine that was going through some stuff,” Burton said. “She looked fine but I knew something was wrong. She was late coming back from lunch one day and she’s never late.”
The Marine had locked herself in her room. When Burton and his commanding officer got the key and opened the door, they found her on the floor attempting suicide.
“And this all happened in a matter of 10 minutes,” Burton continued.
He was able to stop the woman and patch her up before ambulances arrived. Burton had saved her life.
Shortly after, Burton was written up for an award and contacted by Marine Corps headquarters to be featured in one of its “Reawakening” short films. The films focus on leadership that comes by supporting and looking out for fellow Marines.
Telling the Story
Burton was working in Camp Lejeune in North Carolina when he “crossed paths” with Gallegos.
“He was being put into another job field, and he was coming through the school house where I work at,” Burton explained. “The commanding officer of his school got in touch with my officer in charge and then we just kind of met.”
Gallegos had suffered second- and third-degree burns from an accident in Iraq. But after a six year recovery period including 156 surgeries and physical therapy, Gallegos reenlisted in the Marine Corps. He started school at Camp Lejeune to become an administrative clerk.
Burton soon began production on his film, which would honor the Marine Corps value of commitment by telling Gallegos’s story.
But Burton maintained that he didn’t make “Commitment” to get recognition.
“I didn’t do it to win awards. I did it because I felt his story needed to be told, and told correctly. And that was my main focus. But for it to win an award like that—that was amazing.”
Burton was shocked when he found out he won via an email from the foundation’s coordinator. He called Gallegos, his wife Michelle and his father Larry to tell them the good news.
“He has a lot of feeling for people, and he saw this guy and felt like his story had to be told,” Larry said.
A new bridge
In “Commitment,” Burton filmed Gallegos doing his daily routine—making coffee and participating in physical training.
“We did that to show I can do everything like everyone else,” Gallegos explained.
But making coffee would have been very difficult for Gallegos to do just a few years ago.
Gallegos said watching himself on screen at the awards ceremony brought back a lot of past memories. But Gallegos finds strength in his past he wants to share with others.
“It kind of gives a bridge to others that were wounded so they can continue on with their future in the Marine Corps if they choose that route,” he said.
“It’s not only for me — it’s for them. And I have to remember that when it’s a bad day, or training sucks or something like that.”
Gallegos is now serving as an administrative clerk in the office of the secretary of the Navy.
“Commitment” was the first film of a three-part series the Marine Corps values — honor, courage and commitment. Burton’s next installment will focus on “honor” by telling the story of the body bearers of eighth and ninth.