AUSTIN (KXAN) - A clash of ideas leading up to last week's Austin Fourth of July concert and fireworks show, led Austin Symphony officials to cancel plans for veterans to speak at the event.
Symphony executive director Anthony Carroa had already approved a proposal calling for the Homecoming Project -- a veterans' advocacy group, to display a photo montage on giant screens during the performance.
Carroa had also given conditional approval for two veterans and a therapist who works with the veteran community to deliver short verbal monologues, pending a review of their scripts.
The director didn't receive the first drafts, though, until just five days before the event and in the usual last minute chaos leading up to such complex events, he and Homecoming Project director Erin Trieb ran out of time to agree on the language.
So, with only one day remaining before the show, Corroa pulled the plug on the speakers.
"I thought some of the material in the monologues," he said, "were concerning information that was a real downer, in my opinion, talking about taking one's own life. And I know what their mission is all about, but I wasn't expecting (it) to be quite that graphic."
In particular, Corroa worried about the emphasis in the text on suicides by active-duty troops and veterans.
"It's not that I didn't understand or know what their mission was," he said, "and I knew that they wanted a forum in order to present this, but it never occurred to me that it would be such a depressing presentation.
"I just couldn't feel comfortable with the text; I just didn't think it was appropriate for young children and people who might possibly be protecting their kids from thinking about these issues.
"We do need to discuss them but there's got to be a different forum and it can't be through the Austin symphony."
The conflict, though, didn't end there. With Corroa's blessing, Trieb and vet speaker Andrew Wade Nunn went to work revising the wording in the script, but the executive director remained unmoved.
"After reading and rereading the edits," he said, "there was no way that they could make them soft enough to satisfy my concerns about putting this in front of 100,000 people in our audience."
For her part, Erin Trieb, was stunned. She is a freelance photographer with multiple deployments to Afghanistan under her belt, photographing American soldiers and Marines in action.
Not only that, but she also followed some of them home and shot pictures of them trying, and often failing to find their way back into civilian life. When those efforts do fail, the result is often deadly.
"Suicide among the veteran population today is an epidemic," she said, "and it's at an all-time high. I think a lot of that can be attributed to a decade of war and multiple deployments for many of these service members.
"There have been more active-duty service members who have taken their own lives than there have been those killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan combined."
Indeed, Trieb points to often-cited reports in the veteran community that an average of 18 military suicides occur every day.
"To me, those numbers are staggering," she said," and the Homecoming Project's mission ties in completely with bringing these issues to light and illuminating veteran and military suicide and talking about it, making it okay to talk about it.
"This situation is a reflection of the stigma that exists in society. You know, ‘Don't say suicide; it's too depressing.' It's like people don't want to hear about that on a holiday.
"So while we celebrate our nation's holiday on one hand, I think that it's completely appropriate to talk about the costs that are involved."
But Trieb was unable to turn Carroa around, so in the end, she had to accept his decision.
"It was difficult," she said, "to come back and tell these vets, 'Hey, sorry but your stories are too sad to talk about."
For his part, Nunn admits to being mad when he first heard the news. But the former Army combat medic is dealing with his own post traumatic stress disorder by going to bat for suffering veterans.
Nunn is a photographer and filmmaker who is working on, "The Zeus Project," a film trilogy chronicling troops on the ground in the war zones, their struggles to work their way back into American society after discharge and the progress they make over time. He is accustomed, in his work, to obstacles.
"It's the same thing over and over again," he said, "but it takes a lot to disappoint me at this point. I'm so used to it by now.
"If we have 18 service members who are killing themselves every single day, you know, what does that say about us? If they feel so completely unsupported; if they feel their only option left in life is to end their own lives, what does that say about us as a nation?"
As a young soldier on the first of his three deployments to Iraq, Nunn was forced to use his combat medical training quickly.
"Within the first month that I was there," he recalled, "I treated my first
set of casualties. It was a mother and a father and a child. The mother had been shot in the head and was dead instantly. The father had been shot through the leg. That broke his femur and severed his femoral artery and vein. He bled to death. Then the five year-old boy had been shot twice in the stomach. That took a hard toll on me."
A month later, his unit was returning to its base when a suicide bomber in a nearby vehicle detonated an IED (Improvised Exploding Device) beside a tent full of 30 Iraqi troops.
"It killed every single one of them" Nunn said, "and injured one of my gunners really bad, crushed his entire chest, contused his aorta. He was in bad shape with some shrapnel wounds to his face and arms.
"It just kind of got progressively worse through my deployments, seeing friends come in without their faces or their heads completely removed.
"I don't think I got PTSD from seeing casualties but I definitely gained some sort of traumatic stress from losing guys. For me, that was the hardest thing.
"But for others guys, losing brothers-in-arms, coming home and feeling unappreciated, feeling unvalidated, that's one thing that's causing a lot of soldier and veteran suicide."
Nunn is intimately familiar with that trend. On the mantle in his living room is a photograph of the late Scott Zauer.
"He had so much heart," he said, "He loved his country. He loved doing his job and when the army told him that he couldn't anymore and sent him home, he didn't know what to do with himself. And I guess he just felt that he was alone and he didn't have anything left to offer the world and so he ended his own life."
That, though, is just the beginning.
"Scott is one of probably 19 guys that I know that have committed suicide," said Nunn. "A lot of what I've been through since I've been out of the military revolves around suicide, whether it's my friends killing themselves or me feeling hopeless and feeling as if my only option was suicide."
Still, when Nunn got the word he would no longer be welcome on the Symphony stage, he adjusted quickly.
I don't have any bad blood with them. They wanted to do something and they actually did something enormous: They allowed Erin to show her work during the Fourth of July ceremony and I think that's great."
A slide-show created with photographs of troops and vets, shot not only by Trieb, but by other major American photojournalists, some of them Pulitzer Prize winners, was shown during the performance on two huge screens on either side of the stage.
"It's still a step in the right direction," Nunn said, "to get at least Erin's work and other photojournalists who have captured what this generation of veterans is going through, getting their work shown to thousands of people. So I think it was as much of a success as it was a failure."
Corroa agreed: "I thought the photographs were just amazing," he said. "They were poignant and I think it got people's attention. I did not think that they were graphic to the point of scaring anybody."
Trieb, though, worries about the message contained in the cancelled vet speeches. Indeed, Corroa welcomed the public to the concert with a nod to "generous" symphony sponsors.
But the executive director said money has nothing to do with the matter.
"People are going to give money to the Austin Symphony anyway," Corroa told KXAN News, "in support of the programs that we do, so I'm not really concerned with that."
But in the email in which he announced his decision to cancel the vet speeches, he told Trieb: "To put our audience in a similar frame of mind as they hear the recounting of the horrible personal experiences of these three individuals is not in the best interest of the ASO or its sponsors. The risks to my organization, staff, sponsors, Board of Directors far outweigh any perceived benefits you might have."
The good news is that, except for the disagreement over the speaking parts, everyone involved worked well together and even in the aftermath of the controversy, cool heads prevail.
"I'm happy to participate in the future," Corroa said, "if we want to do the same type of thing, but if we decided to do any monologues at all, I would need to be involved heavily in that."
Trieb gets that.
"This wasn't open-mike night," she said, referring to the Fourth of July event. "This was the symphony's program. We thank them for allowing us to come and project images. Everyone that we've worked with at the symphony supports veterans and I definitely believe that their hearts were in the right place, though I was disappointed.
"If anything, it validates the Homecoming Project and our mission and why we were created and what we hope to accomplish, which is getting this issue out in the open, making platforms for it to be discussed available and letting the public know that it's okay to talk about these things. We have to start there."
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