AUSTIN (KXAN) - On the surface, Erin Trieb was simply curious about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I just wasn't buying the whole story of what was on the news," the Austin photojournalist said. "The news networks were running really small clips, but what happened in between those news clips?"
That, though, was only part of it.
"I knew there were a lot of social injustices occurring in the world," said Trieb. "I remember when I was in college, I saw a photography exhibit of black-and-white images from the Holocaust.
"That was a very clear moment for me, almost like a light went off in my head that said, 'If you can approach something like this through photography, then that's what you have to do.'"
When America went to war in Iraq, Trieb was just 22. She wanted to be there with a camera in her hand, but she felt she was too young, too inexperienced, and that she could wind up just getting in the way.
But when things started heating up in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, she thought back to that Holocaust exhibit.
"Photographing certain situations can bring a light into the darkness," Treib said, "and it can illuminate a subject that otherwise might go unnoticed or untold. For me, it's always been important to talk about issues that are affecting a lot of people's lives that maybe aren't being talked about enough."
Besides freelancing, the photographer had spent time shooting pictures for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle. Armed with a letter of recommendation from a former editor, she dove into the bureaucratic paperwork required by the military for journalists who want to embed with American troops.
Then, in the summer of 2009, Trieb showed up at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Shank in eastern Afghanistan's Logar province. She had arranged to spend six weeks photographing the work of a medical team headed by an officer from San Antonio's Brooke Army Medical Center.
The team took her under its wing, giving her free reign with her camera and even putting her to work in the operating room.
At first, it was a fearful young woman who raised her camera to shoot scenes she had never even dreamed of witnessing.
"I knew I was supposed to do this story," said Trieb, "but it's totally different when you get there and you're in front of it and you can smell the smells of the hospital and you can hear the patient groaning because he's in pain."
By the time her stint at Shank was up, however, Trieb had learned the ropes. She knew the action was not on a U. S. military base, but rather "beyond the wire," on patrol in some of Afghanistan's most dangerous areas. She arranged to stay for another six weeks and wound up at a combat operating post (COP), joining soldiers on tense patrols.
"I was the only female on this COP," Trieb said, "surrounded by 200 burly infantry guys. That could be difficult. I was very alone; it was very lonely at times. I talked with a lot of them and we hung out and I tried to make friends but you always feel separated in a way."
Then, to her surprise, as the firefights and improvised-explosive-device (IED) explosions added up, and as Trieb saw and photographed the results, bonds developed with troops that would last far beyond her embed experiences.
"You become a completely different person, "Trieb said, "after you've seen someone get wounded to the point that they are so close to losing their life. Being a part of that traumatic experience, really brushing death is something that should not be taken lightly."
Trieb did not take it lightly. After those first 12 weeks in country, she came home, only to go back, come home and go back again. Altogether, Trieb spent eight months on the ground in Afghanistan, following soldiers, at first, and later Marines, into scary places with now-familiar names.
"Kandahar is a really nasty area," said the photographer, "a lot of IEDs."
Standing one day just outside an abandoned desert compound as troops checked it out for use as a possible camp site, Trieb suddenly wheeled around and instinctively raised her camera at the sound of a deafening explosion.
That IED and a second moments later, wounded two soldiers badly enough that Medivac helicopters were summoned to speed them away for care. It would not be the last time.
"I've only been in one truck that's hit one on the highway," she said, "but, you know, I've been close to them, too close."
Then there was the matter of where to put one's feet.
"You're walking through a field at dusk," Trieb remembered, "and it's very quiet. You're trying very carefully to step in the exact footprint in front of you. It's that intense.
"When I was with the Marines, they have a technique where they actually spray shaving cream on the ground. You have to walk within two feet of that shaving cream to the right or else you might step on something that they haven't examined with their metal detector. That's intense; knowing every step you
take could be your last."
The tension, the fear, the blood, the pain, the noise, the quiet, all combined their forces to play hell with Trieb's mind.
"You know," she said, "I think humans are not meant to undergo that sort of trauma, the trauma of war. We're not meant to see certain things.
"And when you purposely put yourself in a position to witness those things, it's traumatic emotionally and mentally.
"I think we, as Americans, have a romantic idea of war. We watch action movies; we get this idea of what it's like. Once you're in it, though, you're changed forever; you're never the same. You can't go back.
"You know, life didn't ask me, 'OK, this is what's going to happen and are you going to be OK with that?' It just said, 'Here it is,' and it hits you like a ton of bricks."
Trieb credits a solid family upbringing in the surrounded-by-Dallas city of Highland Park for the ability to take care of herself, mentally and emotionally. So she keeps a watch on her feelings.
"It's not easy," she said, "but I think I have an easier time than some 19-year-old soldiers who go into it not having any of those life experiences that I already had formed."
Still, she has her moments.
"You experience things that you never thought you would," she said, "feelings like anger and resentment. You get frustrated really easily.
"I'm one of the most peace-advocating people I know," she laughed. "I rarely get mad. But the first time I came back, just standing in a line at Starbucks, you could start to feel your blood pressure rise because somebody complained that their latte wasn't decaf enough or they were taking too long. Then there's a child crying in the background.
"Things that never would have bothered you, not in a million years before, just start eating at you. This is the complaint of every single soldier and Marine that I know who has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), or who has just gone to war. You don't have to have PTSD to be bothered by this kind of thing.
"It comes out of nowhere; you don't expect it and you have to deal with these feelings that you didn't have before."
Life for Trieb went on, however, and she found herself at Fort Drum in upstate New York, shooting a homecoming function for one of the units with which she had embedded in Afghanistan.
"They had a big ceremony on the base," she said, "and that's what I went to photograph. I had absolutely no idea what was coming over the next six months.
"I was expecting the guys to come back and drink and party and find girls and all that good stuff. I was not anticipating the amount of suicide and death and trauma that I ended up photographing.
"Within months, guys were killing themselves. It was unreal. You know, they survived 12 months of war, but then they get home and can't handle going to Walmart. It was appalling to watch this and I knew something had to be done."
As first one man and then another began to collapse emotionally, Trieb reached out to them and their families, offering to help and asking permission to keep using the camera they had become so used to. Time and again, they said yes.
The MSNBC cable network got word of the plan and followed it with an online feature .
"This is Specialist Adam Ramsey, who's now a veteran," said Trieb, pulling up a series of stark and disturbing, black-and-white images on her laptop. "He came from a past that involved an addiction to different drugs and he joined the army to start over and get clean.
"But he developed severe post-traumatic stress disorder. When he got back he was suffering from panic attacks, depression, paranoia. And soon he began cutting himself. He started having some really dangerous suicidal thoughts and I took him to the hospital so he could receive treatment."
Then there was the veteran who did commit suicide within a month of returning from his first deployment and the staff sergeant who died of pneumonia after brutally attacking his girlfriend and remembering nothing of it.
Slowly, the unfolding agony around her and the seeming cluelessness of the citizens around her began to propel the photographer toward a goal. She launched what she calls, " The Homecoming Project ," a multi-media testimony to the reality of war and its aftermath.
"The frustration," said Trieb, "that I have felt with how disconnected America is to the two wars that its service members have experienced over the past 10 years, that frustration I have been able to use to fuel the Homecoming Project.
"It's my outlet; it's my therapy. I can come back and I can get mad. Then I can say, ‘OK, I can do something about it.'
"My goal is to bring attention to the sacrifices that military communities have had to make throughout the past 10 years and the realities that they experience now.
"I think the project can be a way to begin a dialog about how these wars have affected military families and the public. How do we start talking about this?"
That talk, though, should not, says Trieb,
be political in nature.
"It doesn't really matter who you voted for or whether you wanted troops to go there or not," she said. "The fact is that they're coming home and this is what America is facing: A lot of mental health and emotional issues that our veterans will undergo. It's going to be costly for our country and have devastating results if we don't take care of it."
So Trieb's way of taking care of it is to put her images before us, her images and those of photojournalist colleagues from publications like Time Magazine and the New York Times. That presentation will be staged not just in the traditional manner of a gallery exhibit, but more of an in-our-face display.
"We have plans to collaborate with the Austin Symphony Orchestra ," she said, "for their Fourth of July performance that they do at the Long Center outdoors. We are planning to construct a large cinematic screen and show images from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and also of veterans and veteran communities, the negative and the positive.
"It's going to fit into the symphony's annual show, so they'll be playing a piece of music while we exhibit these images on the screen.
"We also have plans to exhibit the images outdoors at one of Austin's urban parks. I can't say the name of it just yet but we do plan to have large images constructed in an outdoor installation.
"We'd also like to have a couple of film screenings, documentaries that help educate the public about the wars and about combat stress."
The project, though, goes well beyond an effort to create awareness.
"One of our goals is to attract attention to local veteran advocacy groups and nonprofits that help vets in the Austin area," said Trieb.
"While the images are great, they're a tool to draw attention to these local nonprofits; because if we're not getting vets in the door, then I feel like I'm not doing my job.
"The whole point is to get veterans in the Austin community the help that they need and deserve."
All of this will take place during July, a chunk of the 2012 calendar that Trieb has already begun referring to, "Veterans Awareness Month."
Travis County District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg heads to court this week as a defendant in a civil trial that could oust her from office.
Late Saturday night into early Sunday morning, a light band of freezing drizzle traversed the I-35 corridor eastward. With sub-freezing temperatures, even the light precipitation created major problems.
A 10-year-old was killed while standing outside a vehicle after the child's family was involved in a fender bender, DPS said.
Austin Police confirm they have located an 82-year-old women who went missing last night.
APD is responding to a 25 vehicle accident near the 5400 block of Ed Bluestein near Thurgood Ave.
A man is dead after being hit by several vehicles in the eastbound lane of Highway 71 Saturday night.