It's been a very bad week for the Marines in Iraq, and playwright Sean Huze is taking it personally. "Twenty-one Marines killed in the past 48 hours," he says, his voice rising in anger. "I wonder when we've had enough -- when we as a society will hold this administration accountable for getting us into a war unnecessarily."
Huze, 30, lean and tattooed, sips from a can of Red Bull and drags on his cigarette outside MetroStage, the small theater in Alexandria where he is overseeing rehearsals for his first play, "The Sand Storm: Stories From the Front." You might be tempted to dismiss him as another antiwar Hollywood liberal -- he is, after all, an actor and playwright from Los Angeles -- except there's this: Until a few months ago, he was Marine Cpl. Huze, a veteran of combat in Iraq. He also was one of those gung-ho young patriots who marched into recruiting offices on Sept. 12, 2001, itching for payback.
Nicknamed "Hollywood" by his fellow Marines, Huze joined the invasion force that toppled Saddam Hussein. More than two years later, buddies in his old unit, the 2nd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, are still in Iraq, attempting to disrupt insurgent supply lines in the western Anbar province. When his eyes redden and mist with tears, you get it: This war is still inside him.
"You don't come back the same man," he says, lighting another Natural American Spirit cigarette on an ovenlike evening last week after news broke that 14 Marines had died in a massive roadside bombing in Anbar. "So in essence, no one returns from the war."
A cliche, perhaps, but one that has given the world a significant body of literature. Huze doesn't necessarily expect to join the ranks of Homer, Hemingway or Mailer, but says there was only one way to process what he saw and did in Iraq: "I wrote."
"Sand Storm" is a 70-minute series of monologues delivered by 11 characters, all of whom represent some part of his combat experience. The one-act play enjoyed two popular runs in Los Angeles, where the LA Weekly described its vignettes as "raw transcripts of war."
Here's a grunt named Pfc. Weems, looking for survivors after an assault that left numerous civilians dead:
"My ankle rolled and I almost fell into a pile of dead hajjis. I caught my balance and looked down to see what had tripped me. It was a foot. . . . I picked it up and stared at it. I couldn't get past it. I was stuck on this foot."
And here's the ghostly character called the Fallen Marine:
"You're supposed to go through absolute Hell, become something so base you can't hardly believe it's still you, but whatever you do, if you make it home, keep it to yourself."
When Huze came back, he found that he couldn't do that.
He grew up as Shannon Hughes Dykes in Baton Rouge, La., the son of a National Guardsman and grandson of a sailor. From childhood he wanted to be an actor, and after kicking around in college without taking a degree, he struck out for L.A. in 1999. On the advice of an agent, he legally changed his name and landed bit TV and movie parts -- "Rude Guy in Bar" and "Bus Boy" among them.
Working as a health-care employment recruiter when 9/11 hit, Huze took a "70 percent pay cut," he says, to join the Marines. He initially signed up for the reserves but decided to go on active duty because "I wanted to fight."
Huze's time in combat was relatively short. A light-armored vehicle crewman, he deployed to Kuwait just before the war began and saw action mainly in Nasiriyah and Kut. On patrol near Baghdad and Tikrit, he also saw for himself how little was being done to secure the peace: Looters ran wild after Hussein's rapid fall. No way were there enough Marines, he realized, to stop the constant theft of AK-47s and artillery rounds from Iraqi Army resupply points. ("The administration went to war on the cheap," he says now. "The troops did the best we could with what we had.")
A few weeks after President Bush declared the end of "major combat operations" on May 1, 2003, Huze's unit was sent home. Back at Camp Lejeune, N.C., he underwent treatment for migraines and nerve damage caused by a head injury when his vehicle rolled in Iraq.
As a nascent insurgency rose in July of that year, Bush issued his famous response to Iraqi militants' attacks on U.S. troops: "Bring 'em on." To Huze, it was an unforgivable provocation that endangered the troops still deployed.
"It was a provocation that no one who had experience in combat ever would have issued," he says. "Who bleeds in order for him to look tough?"
Then came a growing sense of betrayal: Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. There was no link to al Qaeda. Huze says he kept asking himself, "Was it worth it?" and arrived at this conclusion: "I was part of something wrong."
He worked on his play and kept his opinions mainly to himself. But in March 2004 he fired off an intemperate e-mail to Michael Moore, urging the filmmaker to "keep pounding away at Bush."
"I saw more than a few dead children littering the streets in Nasiriyah, along with countless other civilians. And through all this, I held on to the belief that it had to be for some greater good," Huze wrote.
"Months have passed since I've been back home and the unfortunate conclusion I've come to is that Bush is a lying, manipulative [expletive] who cares nothing for the lives of those of us who serve in uniform. Hell, other than playing dress-up on aircraft carriers, what would he know about serving this nation in uniform?"
Huze says he authorized a more measured version of his missive for Moore's book of GI letters, "Will They Ever Trust Us Again?," but somehow the original made it in -- and onto the Internet. The enlisted man's blistering attack on the commander in chief did not go unnoticed along the chain of command. Huze says the words "Article 134" were tossed around, referring to the broad charge in the Uniform Code of Military Justice that covers good order and discipline. He took that as a threat to silence him.
"If somebody threatened that, I don't really know," responds 2nd Lt. Barry Edwards, a Marine spokesman at Camp Lejeune. "We really don't have any documentation of that."
In any event, no charge was brought. And the Marine Corps' public relations operation gave Huze's literary aspirations a boost by clearing him to stage his play last September while on leave.
That makes sense: The play isn't anti-military in the least. It's not even antiwar. Rather it is a searing exploration of what happens to those who become our warriors.
Listen to the character called Cpl. Rodriguez:
"We pushed right into that town and lit everything up that moved. The fear gave way to adrenaline, and a part of me was actually enjoying it. Don't get me wrong, killing another man isn't fun. Neither is being shot at. But it is powerful. What could be closer to playing God than ending another's life?"
Says the playwright: "It's a lot to ask of a young man, isn't it?"
In March 2005, Huze left the Marines with an honorable discharge -- an early separation connected to his injury. He's become increasingly active in Operation Truth, a nonpartisan group of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans with a mission of keeping the troops' concerns before the public. As the death toll mounts almost daily, Huze sees his play as a way to "humanize those numbers."
He says he wants the audience to ask, "What if it was my son? What if it was my daughter?" His intense eyes moisten. "Then maybe they'll expect accountability."
In the version previously staged, "The Sand Storm" had a character called the Voiceless Marine, who watched silently from the shadows, representing the dead.
But for the East Coast premiere at MetroStage (its month-long run begins Aug. 20), Huze has renamed him the Fallen Marine, put him front and center as the narrator, given him lines.
Somebody, after all, must speak for the dead.