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When the War Comes Home

When the War Comes Home

Photojournalist Erin Trieb wanted to witness a war in an attempt to document the lives of soldiers. She knew the best place to do that was on the frontlines with infantry units in Afghanistan. When the men returned to the states, so did Trieb, spending two weeks in Watertown. N.Y., (home of Fort Drum military base) capturing images of the soldiers, their families, and what she calls “the typical post-deployment heavy drinking and girl chasing.” She then headed home to Brooklyn, N.Y., but what Trieb didn’t know then was that the project was just beginning.

For more on PTSD, see our feature story, “Home is Where the Heartbreak Is” by Steve Nery ’03.

A soldier with PTSD hunches over in a chair

Over the next several months, Trieb learned that at least three of the soldiers she had photographed while in Afghanistan faced mental health issues, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), following their deployment. Trieb picked up the camera again–this time to document the mental toll of war. Two of those men would die during the coming months–one by his own hand and another of natural causes. The third would check himself into a mental facility to deal with suicidal thoughts. All three came from the same combat brigade.

Most soldiers return from combat missions with few or no post-deployment problems. However, post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries are on the rise. A 2010 study by a Stanford University physician found that in a sampling of 90,000 returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, 35 percent of men and 27 percent of women suffered from PTSD. Some researchers believe that most of those diagnosed have underlying mental health concerns prior to deployment.

For some, the disorder takes the form of depression, anxiety and acute paranoia. In the most extreme cases, it takes the form of domestic violence, drug addiction, and skyrocketing suicide rates. On the following pages Trieb shares images of some of the toughest battles soldiers face–battles taking place in the living rooms and bedrooms and backyards of homes in upstate New York, Michigan, and Nevada.

A man rubs his eyes with his index fingers

Specialist Adam Ramsey, 22
Carson City, Nevada
1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division

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U.S. Army Specialist Adam Ramsey served a 12-month tour in Afghanistan. During his deployment, he began to experience hallucinations, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. He visited a psychologist while on a mid-tour leave and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and schizoaffective disorder. Back in Afghanistan, he also sought help from the military. But asking for it meant facing jeers from fellow soldiers who called him weak. “You’re going to kill yourself?” they asked him. “Well, why don’t you just do it?” Upon returning home to Carson City, Nev., Ramsey self-medicated by mixing prescribed medications with alcohol, a common practice among soldiers with post-deployment issues. He also began cutting himself to relieve anxiety and depression. “I was drinking every night,” Ramsey says. And he was contemplating suicide. Those thoughts caused him to check himself into a psychiatric hospital. “It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he told Trieb. Today, Ramsey is married and sober. “He is the only soldier I know who was in serious trouble, got help, and came out on the other side,” says Trieb.

Specialist James March in his home, wearing his military uniform

Specialist James March, 27
Geneva, Ohio
1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division

After photographing the soldiers at war, Trieb wanted to capture them at home. “My initial thought was, ‘I’ve seen the war, but what does life look like when these guys get back to the states?’ … I also felt like it was one-sided to only photograph them as soldiers at war, and not regular American guys, some living in the barracks, others with houses, families, kids, a pet dog.” At Fort Drum in New York, she caught up with Specialist James March, donning his Class A dress uniform in preparation for going home on leave. “The soldiers were elated to be back,” says Trieb. “It was an exciting time, and I was excited for them.” Although the cases of post-deployment issues among soldiers are on the rise, most returning from overseas have few to no mental complications.

A man and woman embrace each other tightly

Specialist Dirk Terpstra, 26
Kalamazoo, Michigan
1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division

Specialist Dirk Terpstra, known as “Terp” to his fellow soldiers, returned home to Michigan last February following a 12-month deployment in Afghanistan. After a night of heavy drinking with his buddies, he became intoxicated and shot himself in the head in a family friend’s yard. Terpstra had experienced depression before his deployment and had made previous suicide attempts after witnessing a car accident that killed his pregnant girlfriend, but his family believes his depression worsened after his deployment.

Upon hearing of his death, Trieb set out for the Terpstra family home in Michigan to ask his mother, Gail, if she could photograph the funeral. “I sat at the Terpstra house for hours that night, and listened to Gail and family friends talk about Dirk,” says Trieb. “I don’t know why Gail opened up her door to me that evening … but I am grateful she did. She said, ‘If sharing my story with the world can prevent this from happening to another soldier and his family, then I want to talk about it.'”

A woman tries to suppress tears as she sits under a sign that reads 'Welcome Home My Hero'

Staff Sargeant Cody Anderson, 25
Watertown, New York
2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment, 3rd Brigade, 10th Mountain Division

The day after he returned from Afghanistan, Staff Sergeant Cody Anderson went out for a bout of drinking and assaulted his fiancee, Stephanie Strausser. “I saw the look on his face and [heard] the names he was calling me, and it wasn’t him,” says Strausser, who points out that the names he was calling her were Afghan. “He just snapped.” After spending a weekend in jail for the incident, Anderson was able to see the damage he had caused when he met with Strausser. “He asked me ‘Did I do this to you?'” Strausser recalls. “He cried and cried. Right after he got back [from Afghanistan] he said several times to me, ‘I’m not normal’ I would say to him, ‘You are normal. You’ve just been through hell and back.'”

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Anderson sought help at Fort Drum’s mental health unit after the assault and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder, although Strausser suspects that he was bipolar prior to his deployment. Anderson was found dead in his apartment on Jan. 14, 2010. At first, the death was ruled an “unknown suicide,” but later investigative reports verified that Anderson died of pneumonia.

“He loved what he did, and he was great at it,” says Strausser. “But he told me that he couldn’t do it anymore. He was getting help.”