Away from Battle, Soldiers Find Relief in ‘Theater of War’

February 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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At military bases around the nation, performances of Greek drama are linking ancient and modern warriors in an understanding of war's pain and mental agony. Jeffrey Brown reports.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight: a story of art and war, past and present.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eight a.m. on a cold winter morning at the Marine Corps base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Virginia, not a typical time, place, or audience for a classical Greek drama.

ACTOR: You see what I have done.

BILL CAMP, actor: I was the bravest in battle, never lost my wits.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, this performance had a very special goal: to link ancient and modern warriors in an understanding of war’s pain and mental agony.

BILL CAMP: Ajax. Ajax. My name is a sad song. Who would have thought it would someday become the sound a man makes in despair?

JEFFREY BROWN: The Theater of War is the brainchild of writer and director Bryan Doerries, who studied classics in college, his insight, that a theatrical experience can help unlock the inner grief and suffering that many soldiers bring back from war zones.

BRYAN DOERRIES, Theater of War: Theater will give permission for people to see themselves in an ancient narrative and then be made to feel less alone by that.

TAMARA TUNIE, actress: I’m afraid things will soon get worse.

JEFFREY BROWN: The concept is simple. Four actors read scenes from plays written in the 4th century B.C. by Sophocles, who, not incidentally, had himself been a general in the Athenian army.

BILL CAMP: Let’s see them steal my arms now!

JEFFREY BROWN: In “Ajax,” set during the 10-year-long Trojan War, a great hero loses his mind and slaughters animals, thinking they’re men, before taking his own life. At one point, his distraught wife describes him in terms that sound eerily familiar.

TAMARA TUNIE: For our fierce hero sits shell-shocked in his tent, glazed over, gazing into oblivion. He has the 1,000-yard stare.

ACTOR: Don’t go.

JEFFREY BROWN: In “Philoctetes,” a wounded soldier has been left behind by his army and despairs alone.

ACTOR: I am wretched, afflicted and alone, with no one to talk to. I have no friends.

JEFFREY BROWN: After the reading, panelists discuss what they have seen. And the audience, soldiers, family members, health care workers are encouraged to speak up. Doerries says he knew he was on to something at the very first performance in San Diego in 2008.

BRYAN DOERRIES: It was a very frightening experience for me. I mean, here I was with these actors from New York and L.A. We were up on stage reading Greek drama to 400 Marines and their spouses and chaplains.

And we scheduled the town hall meeting to go on after the performance, just thinking that maybe a discussion could be had. And when we scheduled, for 45 minutes lasted over three-and-a-half-hours. And there was a certain point in the evening where I had my aha moment, where I saw almost 50 people lined up at the microphone with comments. And each person who came up to the microphone quoted lines from the plays.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, while stress in battle is not new, it’s become a major problem in today’s armed forces. According to a 2008 RAND study, some 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer post-traumatic stress or major depression.

And on the very week we watched a Theater of War performance, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that, between 2005 and 2007, the suicide rate for male vets between 18 and 29 had jumped 26 percent.

BRIG. GEN. LOREE SUTTON, director, Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury: Yes, you could term this an epidemic. It is a crisis of enormous proportions. And, as such, it is receiving that level of emphasis and attention.

JEFFREY BROWN: Brigadier General Loree Sutton, a psychiatrist who heads a Defense Department center on mental health and brain injuries, attended an early performance of Theater of War and saw it as an effective tool.

LOREE SUTTON: For years, there has been the concern, you know, oh, if I mention suicide to someone who’s in crisis, maybe that will plant the idea. Maybe that will lead them to suicide. Well, we know now, the research has shown time and time again that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it’s a relief to be able to engage.

FORMER STAFF SGT. KATISHA SMITTICK, U.S. Army: What really hit home for me was a U.S. soldier, say, probably two, three months into my deployment, came in, and I had to physically, me and another sergeant, physically clean him with our scrub brushes that we use to scrub our hands before surgery, pick the wood out of his face.

JEFFREY BROWN: After a recent performance at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Retired Staff Sergeant Katisha Smittick described watching a fellow soldier die. She had been treated for PTSD here after serving in Iraq and said the play hit home.

FORMER STAFF SGT. KATISHA SMITTICK: I guess that was the part that really shocked me, just because I’m like, this is something that happened so long ago. How could they feel the same thing that I feel right now?

It’s so obvious to see someone without an arm or a leg and missing an eye, and, automatically, we feel very symptomatic for those people, but you never know what someone is going through on a mental basis, and because you don’t want anyone to know. That’s the deepest hidden secret that you could ever have.

JEFFREY BROWN: Marine Sergeant John Eubanks, wounded in both of his two tours of duty in Iraq, hit bottom after returning home.

SGT. JOHN EUBANKS, U.S. Marine Corps: Ended up being a little self-destructive. I was big on the alcohol, ruined some relationships. Work suffered. And it took awhile before I figured out that this was not good. And it took some intervention from some good friends of mine to tell me, hey, you have got to — you’ve got to get help and get going.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is it hard for Marines to admit that they have this problem, because it feels like weakness?

SGT. JOHN EUBANKS: A little bit. A lot of it is, you just don’t realize it. You don’t relate it to combat, because all these problems typically come when you come back. And you sit there and you’re like, well, this can’t be from the war. I mean, I’m back home. This is supposed to be the easy part.

I definitely related a lot to “Philoctetes” and “Ajax.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Eubanks was so moved by the Theater of War experience that he now joins in panel discussions and works with General Sutton on these issues.

SGT. MAJ. RONALD GREEN, U.S. Marine Corps: We go from Iraq to Afghanistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another Marine who’s embraced the Theater of War is Sergeant Major Ronald Green, with 26 years of service, including in Somalia and Iraq. He now sits on a Department of Defense task force on suicide prevention and said it was the story of Ajax that hit him hardest.

SGT. MAJ. RONALD GREEN: In the end, when Ajax committed suicide, when he went out and killed himself, I think, over and over and over again, for every suicide that we have, I try to — I try to relate to, what was the last moment in that Marine’s life? What were they thinking about? What made them feel hopeless?

TAMARA TUNIE: Now tell me how you smeared your sword, plunging it deep into the men you came to hate.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the actors, too, this is a new and sometimes transforming experience.

Bill Camp, a Broadway and film veteran, and Tamara Tunie of “Law & Order: SVU”” said it was they who were moved by the audience.

TAMARA TUNIE: You can see them. You can feel them. You can hear them. And it’s almost more exciting, because I feel that anything could happen, really.

BILL CAMP: There is a dynamic in the room that is different when the room is full of veterans.

JEFFREY BROWN: You can feel it?

BILL CAMP: You can feel it. And then there are those that actually come forward and listen, and the room changes and then.

RAY SUAREZ: The Department of Defense has provided funds so that Theater of War can visit 50 military sites over the next year.