Veteran wins spotlight for ‘burrito walk’ photography

Sean Dustman’s photography will be on display at the Oak Harbor library through the end of November.

Every day, Sean Dustman takes a walk around the Whidbey Island Navy base.

If you were to pass him, you might recognize him by the brightly colored shirts he often wears, picked out for him by his 5-year-old daughter. The breakfast burrito he invariably has in his hand would also be a good indication.

But the best way to pick out Dustman is to look for the man taking photos of every interesting thing he sees along the way.

Though Dustman’s photography won him the Oak Harbor Library’s featured artist slot for the month of November, his daily “burrito walks” are about more than art; for Dustman, his traditional stroll is about mindfulness, improving his mental wellbeing and appreciating the world around him.

Dustman, a retired Navy corpsman from Arizona, served in the military for 20 years, including four tours in Iraq.

“I had a bunch of hard tours, rough places,” Dustman said. “I am an aerospace med tech, and I did a bunch of mishaps and ended up doing a lot of mishaps with people that I knew.”

Dustman said the memories of the people he wasn’t able to save haunted him after he retired. Through therapy, he learned to identify and handle triggers he encountered, but he said he still didn’t feel like his old self.

“I still wasn’t all there, I was still living life in a fog,” he wrote in his artist biography for the library, noting that the winter months were especially difficult to endure since he spent all daylight hours working in his office in the aviation medical records department on the Navy base.

One autumn day, he decided to spend his lunch hour outside on the walking trails that wind all over the base. Dustman said he took a breakfast burrito with him, since it’s easy to eat while walking, and paid attention to everything he saw.

Soaking up the sunlight and enjoying the island’s unmatched beauty changed Dustman’s outlook and temperament. He decided to make the “burrito walk,” as he calls it, a daily tradition — one that he has maintained for five years.

“Suddenly, I noticed that I started really caring about my work and doing things with purpose,” he told the library. “My edges became more rounded and I became more than just me. I had gained a level of understanding that went beyond my work and into my homelife.”

The path he takes changes every day. Dustman said he doesn’t plan his route ahead of time; rather, he lets his feet carry him where they may. Sometimes, his path leads him through the woods. Other days, he walks the shoreline.

What makes a good walk, Dustman said, is coming across something beautiful or strange. Whenever he encounters something interesting in the nature around him, he takes a photo of it, which he usually posts on Instagram later.

Dustman first delved into photography back in 2003 as a unit photographer in the military. Since retiring, he will photograph the occasional wedding or other event. But on burrito walks, Dustman doesn’t often bring along his Canon camera; he just uses his cell phone.

It was these cell phone photos and the story behind them that caught the attention of Oak Harbor library employees. Library associate Natasha Vanderlinden said she was glad the timing worked out in such a way that the library could share Dustman’s story during Veterans Day.

“I was unaware until Sean submitted his bio that he is a veteran, but I am certainly delighted that we are so fortunate to have his work during the month in which veterans are honored, especially as his story is so courageously told and important to share,” she said.

Dustman’s photography will be on display at the Oak Harbor library through the end of November.

Photo by Karina Andrew/Whidbey News-Times
Photo by Sean Dustman