12 Portraits that Illustrate the Pain and Joy of Returning to Civilian Life

In 2011, photographer Erin Trieb set out to illustrate a remarkable story: how military families cope with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and physical disabilities post-combat.

“After several years of photographing veterans, I felt like more needed to be done to reach and connect with veterans, their family members and civilian audiences on issues regarding trauma,” says Trieb. Starting out, “PTSD was still a taboo topic. Not many were openly speaking about it on military bases because of the stigma associated with PTSD. I felt that these stories needed to be documented and then used to help diminish that stigma.”

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Since then, Trieb’s mission has become The Homecoming Project, a public service campaign that has collected more than 1,000 images contributed by various photographers to raise awareness about Iraq and Afghanistan veterans’ struggle to readjust to civilian life. Here, we showcase some of the most moving pictures, from the combat boots belonging to a deceased husband that are always at the entrance of his widow’s house, to the moment when Cheryl Softich of Sparta, Minnesota, tears up while reminiscing on the life of her son Noah Pierce, a soldier with PTSD who committed suicide.

With the help of organizations like Fovea Exhibitions, Americans have been able to see these images in person, most recently at Photoville, a photography exhibit at Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York City. Softich has also written about her loss in a piece that is now part of The Homecoming Project. “People cry when they read her letter,” says Trieb. Some exhibits have become scenes themselves, getting the audience involved to help make an even bigger, visual statement to raise awareness about the plight of veterans.

For Trieb, the most memorable example of that involvement happened on July 4, 2012. In Austin, Texas, on a 105-degree day, images from war were projected onto two movie theater-style screens. “We passed out yellow balloons to an audience of 80,000 people, asked for donations, and talked to people about PTSD and veteran suicide,” she says. “Perhaps not what people want to be thinking about on July 4th, but they should.”

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