It’s taken me too long to write about the Arts & Military Healing Conference in D.C. I’ve been home for a week, and now it’s Memorial Day weekend, and I’m on the road—working—flying people across the country instead of sitting beside a lake or barbequing. It’s a good excuse for being late with this piece, but the truth is, I’ve got a five-hour free block this morning here in Philadelphia—time to work. I’m in coffee shop, uncertain about how to begin, and after nearly an hour of half-hearted and uninspired attempts, I noticed a young woman reading Catch 22—a book more relevant now, than ever. The sight of that book in her hands is enough to inspire me to find a path of expression. After all, there’s always a path to that unknown place—the one we can’t see or imagine until we try.
It’s seldom that words fail me, but I’ve been finding it difficult to describe what it was like to have a buried emotion find expression for the first time – the peeling back of layers into that raw place hidden somewhere inside the shell of an ego or behind the walls we’ve constructed all around us. So, with this in mind, I will attempt to paint/to describe/to inspire in you a modest reflection on what the Art and Healing Conference in Washington D.C. was all about for me. The event was all encompassing, an attempt to use art in a variety forms—visual, written, dance and theatrical—to convey that which defies expression for individual service members. Since I took part in only one of the workshops, I can’t begin to describe the experience for the others. Instead, here’s a link to a gallery of photos that tell just a part of the story.
When I signed up for the conference, I planned to work with the Warrior Writers and to spend some time at the other workshops. In short, I wanted to write about a variety of events with a degree of distance, observing the Veterans as they moved through the week. That seemed a lot easier than actually doing the workshops—and a lot less pressure, too. But after a series of e-mails and discussions with the writer of the theatrical production, I was finally convinced to take on another role—the role of performer. Six of us, I learned, would be asked to tell our stories onstage in a short theatrical interpretation…okay, easy, right? I’m in.
From my narrow lens, I can only look back, seeing myself on a Monday morning, guided into a vast room within the Library of Congress—cavernous in demeanor and feel. The space seemed to burn with nervous energy from five other Vets and I, who, in that moment, were mere shadows of what we would become by week’s end. We moved from room to room across the week—each new space seemingly grander than the next until we finally found ourselves on the stage at the Coolidge Theater and performed for the first time on Friday night. The experience defies a simple description, but I think I speak for all six of us when I say, that in the doing, in the letting go, and in the listening to those who coached us, we heard ourselves for the first time.
We were given scripts at the end of that first day—our own words transcribed from hours of interviews into a story that we would perform four days later. I played along, despite the fact that it didn’t seem real to me, and emotionally, I pushed back. None of us had any real acting experience, after all, and I had this image of us all stumbling around onstage like six graders in a bad school play. At one point, I remember thinking, nobody’s probably going to show up anyway, so how bad can it be—I mean… I won’t be that embarrassed. It got worse when we were asked to take part in a series of exercises and impromptu skits to help us bond and gain trust. I worked through it, though, using my inner ham to keep me engaged. When a camera crew showed up to film and document the event, though, everything began to feel real.
The art of piecing together our stories into a complete narrative was the work of Jonathan Wei, the creator of “The Telling project.” Along with his colleague and director, Max Rayneard, the two men have produced several performances across the country. Their goal is, in part, an attempt to capture the disparate stories and voices of Veterans across America and help bridge that all-too-widening divide between civilian and military cultures. After over a decade of war without a military draft and a small sector of the population serving in the Armed Forces, the need to foster more understanding between the two is greater than ever.
While other “Telling” productions have taken place across the country—usually after months of preparation—we were being asked to perform our production after only five days. Envisioned as a short 30-40 min performance, this project was an experiment–one that would end up being nearly an hour long. As part of the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress, we were all committed to telling our stories, but we didn’t know how or why they mattered. To be honest, I was beyond skeptical after the first day and doubted our ability to give a performance with any artistic integrity. By the end of day two, I thought, well maybe we could perform at an 8th grade level. But with the help of several gifted volunteers who guided us through the week, we began to understand why our stories needed to be shared. They helped us as we molded and shaped our monologues, rewrote our dialogue and began to discover the power and magic in coming to terms with the emotions behind the words. As the stories came alive in us, the performance began to take shape and evolve—and so did we.
The truth is, I didn’t expect to find much emotion in my story. Unlike the other performers, I haven’t experienced combat on the ground. I didn’t see the wounded and dead on the battlefield, have to cope with rape or an attack that left me debilitated and scarred. For me, I discovered that my own frustrations and hurt were tied to the failures of our nation’s leaders to adhere to the moral code they wrap in a flag and then use to call a nation to war. Of course, war is not moral, and maybe that’s the tragedy of it all for those who have to fight. Many of us are lured to the military by patriotism and that desire to do something greater than what we can achieve on our own—might for right. It’s when that commitment falters, fails or is simply abandoned in the face of a Machiavellian—ends justify the means—approach, that we feel betrayed. And then the question lingers—what was it all for?
While teaching at the Air Force Academy, I received a phone call from a concerned parent of a senior cadet. Their daughter was having nightmares after reading one of the books in my War Literature course. The book was Tiger Force, about a series of war crimes committed by American soldiers in Vietnam. I stifled my initial desire to laugh and remind them that she was attending a Military Academy, after all. What the hell should she expect, this isn’t a game we’re playing… but I didn’t. Those parents, like many of us, long for moral certainty in the face of war, but that desire ultimately eludes us and leads our Veterans into a place that they didn’t expect—a place that defies simple explanations and sets about a complex journey through an emotional and physical minefield. It’s the one lesson that every leader and American citizen needs to understand and accept when they send their young men and women off to war.
At this point, I have a desire to touch on the anger of Odysseus upon his return home in The Odyssey, or to reflect on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave about how focusing on moral certainty can keep us from seeing reality, but I’ve written to much as it is. I won’t bore you. In the end, I’m reminded that today is Memorial Day, a time to pause and reflect on those who have perished in war—the men and women buried across the globe to help ensure our nation does not perish from the Earth. I’d like to leave it there, to let that be the end, but I can’t. You see, to be honest—to help bridge that disconnect between Veteran and civilian, I am compelled to say more. The truth is, everyone who engages in combat or who maneuvers on the edges of combat, supporting and helping our troops to survive is vulnerable and often broken by their experiences. Many of those who survive and return home still experience a kind of death—the death of the person they once were—that innocent boy or girl unencumbered by the tragedy and the lie of war—they are gone forever.
Despite what many Americans believe, most Veterans don’t want to be thanked for their service. They want their nation to understand how they have been forever altered by their experiences and that a, We Support Our Troops, bumper sticker is often an empty gesture. More than anything, though, in a nation where fewer and fewer serve in the military, none of us want to be put in boxes and labeled as heroes, murderers, or victims… We know that people aren’t interested in hearing many of the stories–often brutal and violent in nature–that Vets have experienced, and yet they must at least try to listen and hear. Without it, the cycle continues—a Catch 22 in which true understanding eludes our nations citizens. Ultimately, Vets want to be accepted and understood, have a Veterans Administration with the resources to help them heal and recover, and for politicians and citizens to realize that many have become a prisoner to the hurt, anger, uncertainty and guilt we carry with us. For that to happen, for this understanding and acceptance to begin in earnest, most Veterans would give the utmost thanks.
Lastly, I’d like to recognize the people I worked with at the conference. It took a lot of guts for those Vets to stand up and tell their stories in front of a few hundred people. It’s a testament to the amazing group of volunteers who helped us all reach deep and find the inner strength to talk about PTSD, the death of friends, of rape, and the guilt that lingers still. None of us could have imagined the impact on either the audience or the performers—a standing ovation and tears of joy. But this is one production—one piece of a much greater narrative that needs to be shared. We are fortunate that the Library of Congress has reached out to help capture these voices for posterity, and I hope it continues to gain momentum. The week exceeded my wildest imagination, and I was both honored and inspired by those who gave their time and hearts to us. To Jonathan and Max, to the other Vets and to Sara, Rochelle, Stacey and Leslie, thanks for sharing, for guiding, for listening, and for understanding.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Update: Here is a link to a video of the performance which has been made available online.
Until Next Time,
J. A. Moad II