Answering the call to help our soldiers heal

By Bryan Doerries
Monday, May 31, 2010

After a reading of Sophocles' "Ajax" and "Philoctetes" for members of the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Stewart, Ga., a soldier approached me. His hands were trembling and he was fighting back tears.

"For a while now, I have been separated from my unit, the guys I fought alongside downrange. Being separated from your unit is like being stripped of your humanity. I think Sophocles wrote these plays to bring soldiers together to restore their humanity." He leaned closer, his eyes locking with mine. "Without our humanity, none of this means anything."

I held the soldier's gaze and shook his hand, thanking him for his comment, which I promised to share with military audiences at performances throughout the United States.

For the past year, Phyllis Kaufman and I have been presenting readings of ancient Greek plays by a general officer named Sophocles as a catalyst for town hall discussions with service members, veterans and their caregivers and families about the invisible wounds of war. Our project, Theater of War, aims to destigmatize psychological injury by placing it in an ancient warrior context. Fully funded by the federal Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, Theater of War has been called a groundbreaking public health initiative by Defense Department officials. Our project is presenting 100 performances of Sophocles' plays at military bases throughout the United States and Germany.

Sophocles' "Ajax" tells the story of the strongest warrior in the Greek army who, suffering from a "divine madness," or what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, attempts to murder his commanding officers but enters into a dissociative state in which he slaughters harmless animals instead. When he awakens from his rage and sees what he has done, he takes his life, plunging upon his enemy's sword. The play also describes how Ajax's wife and fellow soldiers attempt to intervene and save him before it is too late.

"Philoctetes" depicts the isolation, resilience, recovery and reintegration of a soldier who is abandoned by his army on a desolate island for nine long years because of his mysterious illness. Philoctetes sustains a "wound that never heals" and is ostracized by his fellow soldiers after driving them away with the sounds of his cries. The story explores what it takes to get the wounded warrior off the island so that he can be reunited with his fellow soldiers and treated by the doctors who await him at Troy.

Both plays timelessly describe the impact of war on human beings, asking one fundamental question: How do we restore humanity to those who feel they have lost it?

Watching the soldier at Fort Stewart exit the auditorium last month, it suddenly seemed un-coincidental to me that the ancient plays that we were performing for the U.S. military during the ninth year of the war in Afghanistan and so many years into Iraq depicted what happened to the Greek armed forces during the ninth year of the Trojan War. Brig. Gen. Loree Sutton, the visionary leader who made our project possible, has said repeatedly of today's armed forces: "Never has so great a burden been placed upon the shoulders of so few on behalf of so many for so long."

We are not a nation at war. We are a nation with a volunteer army at war.

In two more years, the current conflicts will be among the longest in our nation's history. In a ritual act of purification and reintegration, the ancient Athenians gathered their citizen-soldiers each spring in the center of the city where they would, shoulder to shoulder, bear witness to the impact of war on humans through stories such as "Ajax" and "Philoctetes."

Storytelling in the Western world was born from the need to hear and tell the soldier's story. Through stories, soldiers made meaning out of their traumatic experiences, healing themselves, restoring their humanity.

How will we as a nation answer the call to restore humanity to our warriors, veterans and military families as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan rage on without a clear end in sight? Without humanity, none of this means anything.

The writer is a New York-based director and translator. In 2009, he co-founded, with producer Phyllis Kaufman, Theater of War Productions, a company that aims to use theater and community to inspire awareness and action.

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