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Covering soldiers' tragedies takes a personal toll

I first encountered Erin Trieb’s story about the lives of soldiers through an email. We had worked with Erin before when she covered a combat ER unit in Afghanistan. Her email updated me on her latest project -- documenting the lives of soldiers who had returned home to Fort Drum, N.Y. They were the same soldiers she had photographed in Afghanistan in 2009.

I was surprised to hear she was living in upstate New York, not Texas, where she had been last I heard. By phone, she told me about a series of startling and sad events: One of the soldiers had died unexpectedly and weeks before had assaulted his girlfriend; a second man had killed himself; and a third said he was contemplating suicide. All were suffering from PTSD.

Worried about the men she had come to know in Afghanistan, she dropped everything to photograph these soldiers day in and day out as they struggled to adjust to civilian life. Here are some excerpts from a recent email the photographer wrote about her experience:

Erin recalls why she decided to tell their story:
Week after week I knew yet another soldier who was experiencing problems. The events I witnessed were extreme cases. You know, there are a number of guys that come back and act completely normal. But out of the small group of soldiers I spent time with in Afghanistan, an uncanny number came home and met tragedy. It was too important to ignore.

But covering this story was tough personally on Erin:
I can remember sleeping in my car in February on the way to Michigan to photograph Dirk Terpstra’s funeral and thinking, "What kind of a life is this?" My schedule had become based around people dying or wanting to die. I hadn't planned to do a story on PTSD. But when the soldiers got back and started showing symptoms, I felt like I had to document it.

It wasn’t easy. These guys were like a part of my family. I had a strong connection with them in Afghanistan, and this connection endured when they got home. But at the same time I was a journalist and I had a job to do.

I have always felt that a journalist’s story or photograph should never come before the subject’s well-being. That’s why I encouraged Adam (to check himself into the psychiatric hospital). I’m grateful that Adam let me document the entire experience. But there were times with him when I had to put down the camera -- it was just too hard to take the picture.

So how does Erin balance involvement and objectivity?
There is a delicate balance that I think journalists learn throughout their entire career -- ‘how close is too close?’

I don’t think that I could do my job properly if I wasn’t emotionally affected. At times it was heart-wrenching to watch what these young men and their loved ones were going through. I struggled with knowing how to emotionally cope with what I had seen -- I sought counseling at the VA clinic in Austin, Texas, and fortunately there is an active community in Austin who support people who have witnessed or experienced trauma.

So why do this kind of project?
If one soldier who is struggling sees my photographs or listens to this story and it encourages him or her to reach out and get help, then I will have done my job. Or if civilians can see my work and gain insight into the aftermath of war, I might help bridge the gap between the men and women in service and every day American life, showing society that this war is not just in Afghanistan, it comes home with the soldiers. The war is here, and it is very real. But through photography and reporting, awareness might be created, light might be shed, people might react ... and if we are very lucky, someone’s life might change for the better. It is my greatest hope.

See the project: When the war comes home