Her smile is bright and accented with a purple hue across her lips. Her doe eyes light up as she talks about the excitement mounting since her photographs have been placed on display at the Corcoran Gallery in the nation’s capital. Life does in fact excite documentary photographer Karin Rodney-Haapala. Her three children are her delight and she loves any movie with dry wit and a sexy guy. But getting to that exuberance requires an extra breath, patience, a meltdown or two and prayer. The 34-year-old is a combat veteran of the U.S. Air Force and suffers from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
In talking about combat veterans with PTSD, we are normally shown the faces of men. Rarely are the voices of women soldiers heard or even shared. The chances of putting a brown girl's face to combat-related PTSD are even slimmer, though the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reports that women are twice as likely to develop PTSD. Rodney-Haapla is shedding her light on the issue through her photography.
In her exhibit called “Incidents” Rodney-Haapala documents her anxieties. The idea grew from a thesis project she worked on while pursuing a Bachelors in Fine Arts and Photojournalism and a Masters of Arts in Teaching at the Corcoran. Currently on display at the Corcoran within their “Next” exhibition, “Incidents” is a five-photo series shot in black and white with detailed hand written prose or diary entries attached to them. Each tell of an incident behind the photo; including a tale about a heated verbal exchange in a parking lot (for which her son joked that she should audition to be a mixed martial arts fighter), a detailed look into her nightmares and a bout with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
One of the most ordinary photos also packs a heavy dose of reality. It is an empty chair with its diary entry recalling how a classmate indirectly attempted to shoot down Rodney-Haapala’s desire to teach with a baseless argument that veterans with combat PTSD have no business in the classroom.
Within the posted entry called, “A Place,” Rodney-Haapala rhetorically asks “Where do we fit?”
“We have all this training and structure…while in the military we’re a part of a collective identity and when we’re released we have to find a place in society. It’s like we’re asking ourselves, ‘Who am I?’”
After completing one tour in Iraq, Rodney-Haapala knew something was awry. She was full of aggression and was often reprimanded by her superiors. She also suffered anxiety attacks in the middle of the grocery store. “I would leave grocery carts filled with food in the middle of the store because I just couldn’t deal,” says Rodney-Haapala.
Her life before Iraq was filled with ironies and a common flee pattern of those with “free spirits.”
“I was an extrovert. I socialized a lot. I was the hold-no-bars kind of person. I had no invested interest and I had the kind of attitude of, ‘I’ll deal with it tomorrow,’” says Rodney-Haapala.
She attended a military high school, hated it and had no plans to go into the military. Armed with her artistic abilities in fine arts, she attended Catholic University, majoring in music education, for a year and half. She was unhappy and wanted out. Like any youth that stays home during their college years, the D.C. native felt too closed in and controlled. She traded one controlled environment for another and joined the Air Force.
“When I joined the military I was still trying to find myself,” admits Rodney-Haapala.
Within two weeks she was off to basic training. Eventually Rodney-Haapala was stationed in Hawaii; a four-year vacation she jokingly calls it. Afterwards, she was sent to Alaska. Somewhere in the middle she became a wife, a mom and a divorcee’. It was during a vacation home that she received a call to report back. She was being deployed. Still, the idea of going into a war zone did not hit her until she landed in Baghdad.
“I’m the type of person that rarely cries, but that day as we made our way to the U.S. Embassy, I was in tears. I had never seen so much devastation. I remember thinking that I can’t possibly give all of myself to this,” says Rodney-Haapala.
Being Iraq made her deal with confrontation. She had nowhere to flee. While in combat she was an engineer’s assistant; creating maps and conducting construction site visits. Daily, strapped in full armor, she traveled Route Irish, known as the most dangerous road in Baghdad, as it is riddled with IEDs. It all became numbing after a while.
The most endearing part of her tour is when she volunteered at a hospital. She worked with Iraqi fathers who were left as the sole caregivers for their children. For Rodney-Haapala that was “the closest thing in getting to my own kids.”
But when her son's father had taken ill, Rodney-Haapala returned state-side to check on him. While she was safe in the U.S., the hospital where Rodney-Haapala volunteered was hit by a suicide bomber.
When her tour was complete, Rodney-Haapala thought a brief break in Kuwait would help decompress her. She underestimated as PTSD took hold of her almost immediately when she returned home.
“It was hard to be in small spaces and in big crowds. I would get shortness of breath. It was just a feeling of…like I was dying inside,” says Rodney-Haapala. The adjustment did not affect her children as her parents offered to further care for them as Rodney-Haapala enrolled back into school. But during the summer, as her kids resumed life with her, Rodney-Haapala lived a lie.
“I put on a façade that I was ok. But I think my oldest daughter knew. My kids are understanding. They look out for me. I honestly don’t know where or who I would be without them,” reflects Rodney-Haapala.
As her symptoms progressed “Nobody in my unit said anything. They thought I was having behavior problems,” says Rodney-Haapala. “I think one of the reasons why people ignore PTSD, especially with women, is because if they don’t see it, then it’s not a problem.”
In 2005, she eventually sought help with a military psychologist. She was placed on sleep aides and anti-depressants.
“I didn’t like being on the meds. I didn’t feel any better. I just felt out of it,” says Rodney-Haapala.
As she did her own research, Rodney-Haapala had a hint about what was going on, but because of a rating system conducted by Veteran Affairs and how her therapist broke down her symptoms, it would take several years, until her birthday in May 2012, for her to be officially diagnosed.
In the midst of her anxieties, life after Iraq ushered in a second marriage and a third child for Rodney-Haapala. However, the second marriage crumbled and Rodney-Haapala pressed on with life with her three kids. Her plans to teach photojournalism have not been derailed. PTSD is just a part of her life, a norm that she manages masterfully.
“I want people to know that I’m functional. I enjoy life and my family. Despite my experiences, I look at them in a positive light. My life is more fulfilling. I’m able to be an advocate or give voice to other women veterans, especially women of color with PTSD.”
Rodney-Haapala’s “Incidents” will be exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. until May 19. To view Rodney-Haapala’s work visit her website.
Tiffany E. Browne is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @TiffanyEBrowne.