The Hero Project

09.04.12

War Photographer Trains Her Lens on Military Suicide at Home

Erin Trieb saw soldiers who’d made it through Afghanistan wrestle with life in New York—and she wants to be sure the rest of us see them, too. Allison Yarrow reports.

Erin Trieb hopes her photos of soldiers can help save some of them from the horrors that follow too many of them home from war—and that followed her, too.

Erin Trieb's Homecoming Project

One hundred and fifty-four American soldiers committed suicide in the first 155 days of 2012—claiming 50 percent more lives than combat fatalities in Afghanistan over the same span. PTSD is often the culprit or a contributor, and it’s what galvanized Trieb to tell the stories of the troops who suffer—because she also believes she suffered from it herself.

The 30-year-old Texan says she caught the photo bug early, when her grandfather gifted her the vintage Graflex Speed Graphic camera that he had used to document the heroic efforts of the Red Cross during the Second World War. After graduating college, she spent eight months in Israel capturing the frenetic wind down of the second intifada, where she says she and other female photographers experienced brazen sexual assaults. Trieb recalls Palestinians awaiting the media’s arrival before becoming aggressors and throwing rocks, and felt that she and other photographers were responsible for literally triggering conflicts.

“Other journalists get off on it. To produce images like that was not genuine,” she says. “I had to step back and realize the country wasn’t for me.”

She returned to Texas, where her photographs of Kinky Friedman’s quixotic gubernatorial campaign in 2006 won her awards and subsequent calls from national news organizations like Newsweek and The New York Times.

But she wanted to go back to war, and in July, 2009, Trieb went to Afghanistan, where she connected in with Col. Kit Swiecki, a surgeon stationed in San Antonio, who she figured would be of interest to the Texas press. She ended up spending six weeks living in a tent in Logar Province along with Swiecki and his unit, the 8th Forward Surgical Team, comprised of about 20 people—medics, nurses and surgeons. The images she captured from the operating room are arresting—patients whisked in on helicopters, prostrate on gurneys, bleeding, screaming.

But Trieb wanted to see what had caused all those injuries, so she extended her ticket six weeks and joined missions and patrols orchestrated by six different battalions. “To be honest, it was so fun. It was dirty and gross and hard. Maybe it’s because I’m a tomboy and like adventure,” Trieb says, describing sleeping outside in abandoned houses, going on missions in the middle of the night, and not showering for days.

'I'm a sensitive artist and a woman. If these problems exist in me, I can't imagine how hellish it would be for a 20-year-old kid who can't make sense of any of it.'

When she returned to the states, she says she wanted to continue following some of the soldiers she had bonded with in Afghanistan. So she just started showing up at their base, driving the nearly six hours from New York City to Fort Drum to see them. 

Over six months making trips to Fort Drum, Trieb says she spent most of her time there simply spending time with the soldiers, many her own age and younger, rather than photographing them. Unlike when she embedded with them in Afghanistan, they didn’t entirely understand what she was doing with them in New York, she says.

“When you’re over there, they get it. They know you want to photograph them as heroes. But if you want to hang out with them until 4 a.m., they’re like, ‘Why are you still hanging out with us?’ You have to be pushy,” says Trieb, who adds that she struggled with the gender dynamics that arose late at night when everyone was soused.

“If you’re a girl and you’re in the barracks at 2 in the morning, all bets are off.”

She photographed them executing calisthenics on a snow-covered training base, or wrestling each other drunk or dragging on cigarettes in the infantry barracks. She has shot homecoming parades, hospital waiting rooms, and a circle of photos of a widow collected on her dead fiancé's wall.

Back home, she says, she saw more soldiers fall apart than she had on the battlefield. They abuse drinks or drugs, abuse spouses and loved ones, shirk sleep and plummet into crippling depression. Their commanders, bosses, and the military doctors are under-resourced and ill-equipped to treat them or mandate psychological care once they are home, she says.

After returning to Texas, Trieb says she had her own experience with PTSD, that tracked those of the soldiers at Fort Drum she’d spent so much time with. She describes feeling anxious and impatient, recalling her boyfriend's seeing a temper she hadn't had before.

"You get really angry. You get home and you don't give a shit what cereal you eat. The grass isn't as green as it was when you left it," she says. She felt that her decisions and actions were pointless after watching her friends encounter so much sadness, loss, and trauma.

"It was a huge struggle for me to get past that," Trieb says, but she talked to psychology professionals and continued to engage with her own work. A tragic tidbit she learned from a psychologist is that many 20-something soldiers are so young when they internalize trauma that the part of the brain for processing such experiences hasn't even developed yet.

"I'm a sensitive artist and a woman. If these problems exist in me, I can't imagine how hellish it would be for a 20-year-old kid who can't make sense of any of it," she says.

But one of the most trying assignments for Trieb, and what helped inspire the Homecoming Project, was photographing the funeral of Dirk Terpstra, a 26-year-old infantry specialist who shot himself in the head while on leave near his home in Kalamazoo, Mich. Trieb knew him in Afghanistan, and read about his death on Facebook. She drove to his parents’ home bearing a card and flowers and asked if she could photograph their son’s funeral the following day.

They said yes, and she sat with them for hours, listening to Terpstra’s family discuss the life he had lived. “You feel like you’re invading a family’s privacy,” she says. “But nobody else was there to photograph the proof that this person had killed himself, and what the family was going through.”

In June 2011, Trieb launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $22,000 for the Homecoming Project, that “takes storytelling, imagery and mixed media beyond the magazine page into the audience's backyard” by presenting photographs taken by Trieb and other professionals (including Ashley Gilbertson, Ed Kashi, Craig Walker, Ron Haviv, Peter Van Agtmael, Damon Winter), along with those by service members and their families in public settings like parks and movie theaters—places “where people must look at them.” The idea is to raise awareness of current issues facing today’s veterans while raising funds and support for local, nonprofit, veteran advocacy organizations.

The Project exhibition commenced on July 4th coupled with a symphony performance in Austin, Texas where Trieb lives. Another leg will kick off next April, combining those images with creative workshops in music and photography for vets taught by industry professionals. National Public Radio's StoryCorp will also join the event to include some veterans’ experiences in their reservoir of American story recordings. 

For Trieb, the work is personal but it’s also her duty as a journalist witnessing history that most people will never see.

“How many people can say they have seen the frontline of the war in Afghanistan? That knowledge comes with great responsibility. We have to be here to help each other.”