The Commerce Journal

March 6, 2014

Through her eyes

photojournalist relives time spent embedded in military units in Afghanistan

By Joseph Hamrick
The Commerce Journal

COMMERCE — War is hell.

Just ask freelance photographer Erin Trieb, who has seen her share of violence covering the war in Afghanistan over the past four years.

“I don’t think there’s any other way to cover war than to show the horrors of it,” she said, adding that since only one percent of the United States population serves in the military, she wanted to help raise awareness of the casualties of war.

“I have learned a lot about war photography in the past four years,” she said,

Trieb grew up enjoying photography, but said she was drawn to it as a career when she saw the photographs in the LIFE Magazine special “What They Saw” and taking classes at A&M-Commerce.

“I realized I found my mission and vocation in life,” she said, adding that the photography peer group she met while attending A&M-Commerce was invaluable to her as a professional. “I felt I had finally found my niche.”

After graduating from A&M-Commerce, Trieb said she wanted to document soldiers in the war in Afghanistan and applied to be embedded with a unit in the Army.

A few weeks later, Trieb received a letter telling her she was approved and was shipped out to be embedded with a forward surgical team in Afghanistan.

“I loved the soldiers I worked with there,” she said, adding the team would pick up both soldiers and civilians caught in the crossfire during the war. “It takes a lot of courage.”

Trieb said the hospital the team worked in was “literally a giant camping tent. You were working with 20 people in the tightest quarters possible.”

Trieb said working there was reminiscent of the TV show “M.A.S.H.” in the sense that there was a lot of down time coupled with moments of intenseness that reminded her she was at war.

One such story was when a Sgt. Major was transported in to the trauma ward after receiving multiple injuries during combat.

The Sgt. Major was going in and out of shock during surgery.

Trieb hovered over the soldier, taking photographs of him during the surgery.

The soldier was flown to a more secure base and Trieb later found out he lived through the ordeal and found the photograph she had taken of him two years later.

She was invited to visit with his family in Florida and told her one of the reasons he lived through the surgery was because he focused on a woman standing over him, which helped him concentrate.

“We both shed a few tears,” she said. “This is why I do this; for moments like that.”

Although her first work in Afghanistan was memorable, Trieb said she still wanted to experience combat on the front lines, so with her next work, she embedded with Battle Company in the 10th Mountain Division.

At first, Trieb said the soldiers did not take her seriously, because she brought a plastic camera instead of her professional one, and would be teased and jokingly called “the enemy” since she was a photojournalist in the war.

But after going alongside the company on extended foot patrols, Trieb was able to build a rapport with the soldiers.

“They were a really fun unit,” she said.

Trieb’s last tour in Afghanistan was with the 101st Division’s descent into Kandahar, which was a particular bloody portion of the war.

“They were a much more difficult unit to photograph because of the terrain,” she said, adding the danger was great while she shot there.

Trieb took more than photographs home with her upon returning to Afghanistan.

According to the National Institutes of Health’s publication Medicine Plus, approximately 11 percent of returning soldiers from Afghanistan developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Trieb said the high rates of PTSD and learning that 22 veterans per day on average take their lives shocked her.

“I was not at all prepared to witness that,” she said.

The shock hit home when Trieb learned one of the soldiers she photographed committed suicide.

She was asked to photograph his funeral.

Trieb began photographing soldiers who returned home.

Trieb said that getting to know veterans through her work inspired her to help create The Homecoming Project, a campaign to help raise awareness of veteran issues related to war and combat trauma through photography.  

Trieb said she hopes that by raising awareness of the trauma soldiers go through during war, she might help protect the soldiers who enlisted to protect the citizens of America.

For more information on the project, visit