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'Conflicts In A Lot Of Detail': The Power Of Veteran Storytelling

Storyteller and photographer Tim Kolczak of The Veterans Project.
Photo courtesy of The Veterans Project
Storyteller and photographer Tim Kolczak of The Veterans Project.

Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans, especially giving thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably. But those messages of gratitude can stir up memories and a wide range of emotions for former warfighters.

Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans, especially giving thanks to living veterans who served their country honorably. But those messages of gratitude can stir up memories and a wide range of emotions for former warfighters.

TPR’s Carson Frame spoke with Tim Kolczak of the San Antonio-based Veterans Project — a self-described photographic essay — about how he approaches the holiday. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CF: So Tim, over the last couple years, you've been working on something called the Veterans Project, which I'm obviously a big fan of. Tell me a little bit about what the format looks like now, and the scope of the veterans that you're reaching out to.

Tim Kolczak: It was vital to me to cover veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, because that was the perspective that I understood. I'd been to Iraq. I served over there for 10 months with my infantry unit. And so that experience, to me, was something that I could understand. But obviously, that scope expanded as I realized the power of the work and the honesty, authenticity and truthfulness of these veterans as they expressed their lives to me.

CF: You use several different forms of media: photographs and audio. Right? And you do a pretty deep dive in talking with these folks. You spend a lot of time.

TK: Yeah, there's a lot of depth to it. It's very authentic in the way I do it. I spend 2, 3, 4, days — sometimes a week — with these veterans at their jobs or their homes. Just showcasing their lives in reintegration and transition. Some of these veterans are still active. But most of them are out now, transitioning into other ways of life and other careers. Some of them are very successful in a materialistic way — in that they've created incredible platforms for their work going forward — whether that's a nonprofit or company.

But yes, this work is very deep. It is no holds barred. Very often I spend the first few hours to half a day not even taking a single picture or asking them a single question related to the project. It's really just getting to know a brother or sister. I know them in one way, because we both served, right? We both signed on the dotted line. So, we have that common bond that brings us all together and it's amazing. Every time I step into the room, I feel like I know that person in some way — like we knew each other in another lifetime. But I still have to have spend time with them and get to know them a little better before I just roll into, “What was it like getting shot at?” You can't just roll into the hard questions right away.

CF: I don't think you and I have ever talked about this before. But as a veteran yourself, how do you think about Veterans Day, November 11th? Does it bring up a lot of things for you, personally, about your service? Or the friends that you met that way? Or do you kind of think of it more now as it relates to your heart and to the veterans project?

TK: It is complex, right? Some people are very specific: “Well, Veterans Day is not Memorial Day, and Memorial Day is not Veterans Day.” Right? But I feel both ways about it, if that makes sense.

I've lost friends, you know? I've lost plenty of friends. I've lost some to the war at home — suicide and taking their own lives. My best friend from my unit, Carter Chick, he took his own life about five years ago. Really, he's been my drive to light with this work. He has been my greatest source of energy. I remember his word telling me never quit this work. He said to me, “Whatever you do, man, never quit this work. Our stories have to come alive and we have to tell the civilian population who we are.” I still remember that discussion. So, my understanding of Veterans Day is pretty emotionally connected to that. It's connected to loss as well as gain.

CF: Is there a fear or hesitation about being honored, whether specifically on Veterans Day or in general? Is that a factor?

TK: Yeah.

CF: Talk about that.

TK: So glad you asked that. We're so humble — almost to a fault. There's always a humility, and it's kind of a peer pressure type deal. You don't talk about your stuff too much. Stiff upper lip. You know, I think the British brought that into play back in WWI, but we're the same way. We don't speak a lot about the trauma and the issues — and in a way that hurts us. But it's the same thing with the awards. We really don't like to highlight those things, because we feel like we're standing out amongst the community. So there is a certain enforced humility community-wide. I think that's a good thing and a bad thing. I definitely think we should express ourselves. And it's okay to talk about what we've done and accomplished, because it inspires others. But it's also good that we keep each other in check. I think that's powerful.

CF: You're a big history buff —especially about the history of conflict. On Veterans Day, do you think a lot about the end of WWI and the Texans who were called up? Does that kind of thing crop up for you?

TK: Yeah, I definitely think so. For me, that's really why this work started. I talked about Carter Chick’s unfortunate death. But this work was sourced from when I was a kid, and opening books about the 36th Infantry Division fighting in World War II, you know? The T-Patchers, Texas National Guard. I was always interested in the story of what happened to those individuals. What happened to their narratives? What happened to this guy’s life after the war? And that question was never answered for me in these history books. They describe these battles, these conflicts, in a lot of detail. But what happened to the individuals who came back?

CF: You're trying to shift from seeing them as historical chess pieces to, “Oh, these are characters. These are living people with stories.”

TK: Yes. The expression of individuality is so important, Carson. It's something that lives in my work. I think what so often happens is that when hear stories on major networks you're left with this feeling of hollowness. Or a general feeling of apathy. You don't really care that much about what happened with the individual. But when highlight the humanity in each person, there's really a buildup of empathy, where you want to know that person and you start to feel a connection. I've had so many people relate back to the podcast. Like “Tim, I was bawling for like three or four hours.” And I think to myself, “Yes, I did it. I hit that mark.” That's what I want, is to express is the humanity. We're not cyborgs who go off and fight in these incredible conflicts — and then come back — then you plug us in and charge us up for the next war. We are humans. I think you can see that in the project. Or at least I hope you can.

CF: Tim, thank you so much for sharing your work and your experiences with the Veterans Project and also your reflections on Veterans Day.

TK: Of course, truly beautiful. Thank you so much for allowing me to come on. We can really change a lot of lives through this model of storytelling. I believe that 100%. Not just awareness, but action as well.

Transparency Note: TPR and the Veterans Project are currently developing a TPR podcast dedicated to veterans’ stories.

TPR was founded by and is supported by our community. If you value our commitment to the highest standards of responsible journalism and are able to do so, please consider making your gift of support today.

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.