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For some combat veterans, seeing life through a camera lens

Chris Veltri was taught to shut down his emotions in the Marines, and since his discharge in 2010, the Lockport resident has struggled to feel empathy.

"You take all of your emotions and shut them off," Veltri said. "You completely detach from them – anger, sadness, joy – they're all a distraction, and we're taught that distraction gets you or someone else killed.

"It's really easy to disconnect yourself from those emotions," Veltri continued. "It's a lot harder to hook yourself back up."

Photography has helped Veltri break through that emotional wall.

He is one of 35 combat veterans taking part in the Odyssey Project, an intensive program of workshops designed to help vets explore how photography can tell stories and forge connections. Created by photojournalist Brendan Bannon in association with CEPA Gallery, the project started with a two-day intensive retreat and will culminate in a book and an exhibit at CEPA in September.

The project, named after Homer’s "Odyssey," is designed to give veterans a chance to use photography to explore and explain the unique challenges of coming home, Bannon said.

Each veteran, recruited by Veterans One-Stop of Western New York, is given a digital camera and attends weekly workshops.

The program isn't diagnosis-driven, and there aren't counselors.

But the veterans say it is helping them address haunting memories from war and reconnect with emotions they'd shut off.

"Being able to capture those feelings in photographs helps me recapture them in myself," Veltri said.

Veterans that participate in the Odyssey Project produce a scrapbook during the course at Pioneer Camp and Retreat Center in Angola. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Bannon was inspired to create the program by the example of a childhood friend, a World War II veteran and mentor who used watercolors as a way to deal with trauma and isolation.

"Photography, like any art form, has the ability to change and transform the lives of their practitioners," Bannon said. "For me, photography was a passport out of a series of my own traumatic experiences, and into the world at large."

He first proposed this project in 2011, after returning home from covering the aftermath of war and disaster throughout the African continent. Bannon had trouble fitting into a world that didn't accommodate the changes that happened to him abroad.

"This felt like a way to continue work that I began with refugee kids, but in an American context with people who have been exposed to life-altering effects of trauma," Bannon said.

Opening up

Eric Chiazza had little experience with photography before the Odyssey Project.

The 29-year-old Town of Tonawanda resident returned to Western New York after leaving the Marines in 2012 following deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Haiti. Learning how to use the camera was difficult, he said. Now that he's getting the hang of it, he's finding the world he sees through a lens looks different.

"It really kind of changes the way I look at everything," Chiazza said.

Several years ago, a roommate and fellow veteran died and Chiazza lamented that he only had one photograph of them together. That gave him a deeper appreciation for photography.

Chiazza has learned how to write about the photos he takes through weekly assignments. Sometimes, he said, it's a paragraph. Other times, it might be a page.

"Supplementing my words with a picture really helps readers know what I'm saying," Chiazza said.

Melissa Amacher gives Julian Chinana a hug after he told an emotional story while showing his photo project. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Julian Chinana, Odyssey's co-teacher, studied photography at the University at Buffalo after leaving the Marines in 2006.

Photography helps him break down the wall of communication he sometimes finds between himself and others who can't relate to what he experienced.

"It has allowed me to talk about things I have done and places I have been," said Chinana, a Williamsville resident. "The lack of communication is what drives people into that isolation mode."

A self-portrait taken during the Odyssey Project: "Despite the many years which passed, the smoke hasn't yet cleared” (Photo courtesy of Julian Chinana)

The program, he said, brings veterans with similar experiences together.

Veltri, the former Marine from Lockport, recalled working a checkpoint when a vehicle full of children approached. He was getting ready to fire his gun when it stopped.

"Had it gone the other way, I would have needed to pull the trigger," Veltri said. "At that time, and in that state of mind, I would have absolutely been able to."

Photography, he said, has allowed him to "reconnect with those emotions I don't do in present time."

"Being able to capture those feelings in photographs helps me recapture them in myself," he said.

Pictures of his wife and 2-year-old son helped Veltri feel grounded after years of moving.

"I didn't realize it until I looked at it through the lens of this photography program," Veltri said.

Michael Thaxton of Rochester takes Christopher Veltri's portrait during an Odyssey workshop. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

'Not judged by anyone'

In a recent photo workshop, Michael Shanley brought in three medals earned from his unit in Iraq, which he placed over a photo of Saddam Hussein's face in The Buffalo News announcing the Iraqi dictator's capture.

"We got him," said Shanley, a Grand Island resident who was discharged from the Army in 2004.

"I wasn't there to take him out of the hole, but my unit was part of the mission and the missions leading up to that," he said with pride.

"The Valorous Unit Citation was given to us for the capture of Saddam Hussein. We were pulling security on our tank, I was the driver. I pop my hatch a little so I can feel a little breeze. We got #1 they said on the radio. Hell Yeah!! Alright, can I go home now?" (Photo courtesy of Michael Shanley)

Shanley praised the photography program, and said the most exciting thing has been to watch the motivation of others in the class.

"One of the guys called me to see if I wanted to catch a sunset. It threw me off and it was like, 'OK, cool,' " Shanley said. "Now we're taking bike rides on a Saturday night to shoot photography. It's getting us to explore our surroundings a little more, and get outside of our comfort zone."

Melissa Amacher, an Amherst Air Force veteran who worked as a medical technician, said the assignments give her a new way to look at things.

"It makes you look for the finer details," Amacher said.

She appreciates the camaraderie and safety the program offers.

"We're not judged by anyone," Amacher said.

Michael Shanley, of Grand Island; Chris Veltri, of Lockport; and Brian Hamilton, of Tonawanda; challenge each other to a friendly pushup contest during a break at the Odyssey retreat. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Former Army sergeant Joe Ruszala, 71, is no stranger to photography – he's been taking pictures as long as he can remember. The class allows him to better make the transition from film to digital images.

Photography is also a source of healing for him.

Ruszala said he and his fellow troops were caught up in a massive attack in Vietnam six days before he was discharged. When he was back home in Cheektowaga, trying to process what had happened, he recalled how his parents wondered why he didn't want to talk to anyone.

"We put human beings in some really tough situations that no human beings should ever go through," Ruszala said.

Joe Ruszala has a photo of him kissing a helicopter that saved his life while serving in Vietnam. (James P. McCoy/Buffalo News)

Michael Thaxton was discharged from the Navy in 1986, but he still struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Photography has helped Thaxton confront those experiences by using it to see life through another lens

"It has allowed me to use my images to express more emotion, and deal with issues from the past," said Thaxton, who drives from Rochester to participate in the project.

"I worked in an air crew. I saw some pretty bad things. Let's just leave it at that," Thaxton said. "I never dealt with it until now. I'm out of my comfort zone and discussing things with these guys as brothers and sisters.

"Now," he said, "I'm dealing with some of the things I saw in the military that were never really resolved."

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