Very powerful story. They gave veterans a camera and asked them to record how they felt:
True was shadowing doctors for a different project when she realized how frustrated the veterans were. Doctors would ask questions, and patients would try to answer by telling a story, but doctors had no time to listen.
So True, who has a Ph.D. in folklore, began recording their stories.
“Some of them,” she said, “would bring in photos after a while and say, ‘This is the guy who I told you about who was killed,’ or ‘This is the guy who I told you about who was my best friend. . . .’
“I just realized that there was this very powerful thing that was happening, that the photos were helping them tell their stories. One of the problems I think a lot of veterans have is that some of the experiences they’ve had are so surreal, and so outside the normal human experiences that it’s hard for them to even connect to their own memories and their own experiences.”
So with the cameras, she asked them to focus on four questions:
How does deployment affect your mental, physical, and social health? What challenges do you face when you come home in making the transition to civilian life? What barriers do you face when it comes to getting health care? Where do you get your strength and support? They could also use photos from earlier deployments in answering these questions.
Many veterans of the Afghan and Iraq wars don’t use the VA, or come only rarely, True said. A goal of the project also is to understand why.
Chantelle Bateman submitted a photo of a knotted, twisted tree, which to her represented the VA. “It is like a maze,” she said. “The system is not set up for people to talk through things.”
The grant for this project, from the VA, was $90,000. True hopes to get another grant so some of the 40 veterans in the project can get paid to take the show on the road and speak to high schools, colleges, and other VA hospitals.
Raquel Rojas, of Philadelphia, submitted a photo of a perfectly made bed in a little room. She wrote:
“Back from our second deployment, we were away for training. My commander killed herself. That’s the room she was staying in: Room 22. She hung herself in the bathroom. She went through with it.”
Toby Bodnar chose a photo of a small wound and said:
“Images of blood are kind of a draw to me. My best friend in the military was killed in Iraq. He was killed in an ambush on the day we were supposed to be back in the U.S., except we had been extended for three months.
“I was gifted with a box of his 240 ammo that he had been using during the ambush. The rounds were caked with his blood, and I was encouraged to use those rounds to kill.”
Dustin Greenhill came home and went to medical school. He submitted two photos of his backpack, one in combat, and another in a medical school auditorium. His quote:
“I had this backpack on my first deployment. That photo is my second deployment and the backpack survives. It was dirty. I used to carry my ammunition in there; I used to carry health supplies for when someone got injured. I carried war stuff in there.”
Tracy Pennycuick, a retired lieutenant colonel from Harleysville, says this exhibition is so important for the VA doctors and staff.
“If you have never walked a day in a combat veteran’s boots, you have no clue,” she said. “I hope this project opens their eyes to what life after is. It is different. You never come home the same.”