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Ancient Greek Tales of War Evoke Modern Catharses

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 15, 2010 – After 2,500 years of retirement, a former general has been hired as a military consultant to help troops cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Sophocles, an ancient Greek general and 5th century B.C. dramatist who penned tales of war and the lives of those affected by it, now speaks from the grave, as a modern interpretation of his works is read at military facilities and hospitals before audiences with ties to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Theater of War,” a brainchild of director Bryan Doerries that intends to bridge the past and present, represents what military officials describe as one of the more innovative public health efforts to amplify the dialogue about a psychological injury borne by an estimated 20 percent of troops returning from combat.

“I think the military naturally distrust film quite a bit, but I think theater is pure,” Doerries, the son of two psychologist parents, said this week in an interview at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here during a performance’s intermission. “I think there’s something about the felt emotion in the presence of others that changes your relationship to material like this, so that all of a sudden you’re not coming at it from your head. You’re coming at it from your heart.”

The two-part performance staged within an auditorium on the hospital grounds was minimalist fare: it featured only a long table with four microphones and chairs for the performers. Enter stage right, three graduates of the venerable Julliard School, and prominent actor Isiah Whitlock Jr., who is best known for his performance as Sen. Clay Davis on HBO’s gritty urban drama “The Wire.”

But the matinee of excerpts from Sophocles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes” was less about the performance itself and more about its effect on audience members able to connect the ancient text to their own lives.

“You, and your various perspectives within this community, are ultimately the translators of this material,” Doerries, whose theater production has teamed with the Defense Department to conduct 100 performances over the next year, told the audience. “The performance really begins with what we do onstage, but it ends when the last person in the audience has finished commenting.”

Facing the sparse stage was an audience composed of wounded troops, retired servicemembers, families, hospital caregivers and other curious parties interested in the oblique approach to an issue that has been characterized as a “signature wound” of the current U.S. wars.

As the actors portrayed scenes of rage, shame, guilt, isolation and suicide – all inspired or catalyzed by war experience – some in the audience were seen sitting on the edge of their seats, others wiping tears from behind the lenses of their glasses.

One of the more evocative moments came after the dialogue was performed, when a group of panelists – referred to as “the chorus” – occupied the front of the room and drew parallels between then and now, illuminating some of the universal and timeless themes attendant to human conflict documented since the Trojan War.

Among the panelists was self-titled “Army Wife” Sherri Hall, who recalled remaining in “deployment mode” during the brief seven-month period in 2004 between her husband’s two tours in Iraq. When her husband, Army Maj. Jeff Hall, returned from Iraq after his second deployment, she said, he possessed what Sophocles described as “the thousand-yard stare.”

“I knew he was different when I saw him in the airport hangar,” she said.

For years after returning, Hall declined to face the demons he collected during his lengthy deployments. He focused his rage on subordinate soldiers under his command. His family relationships chilled. He loathed himself. Finally, in April 2008, he “hit a wall,” and decided to take his own life.

Paraphrasing a line from one of the plays that particularly resonated with him, Hall said, “I decided that if I couldn’t live honorably, I would die an honorable death.”

When his wife discovered him at 3 a.m., Hall was passed out on the lawn surrounded by empty bottles of wine. He had held a loaded weapon to his head, but had decided against suicide at the last moment.

“It wasn’t until I was actually in the backyard about to pull the trigger when I realized that my daughters might see me the way that I had seen people overseas,” he recalled. “And I did not want to leave them with that.”

With the main dramatis personae and chorus having concluded their roles, an empty microphone stand was placed near the audience. A young woman in civilian clothes approached it.

For the next few minutes, a soldier who declined to be identified, told of her job as a combat nurse at a military hospital in Iraq, the horror she witnessed and the images she can’t forget.

“All I saw was death,” she said. Identifying with the shame Ajax felt at his inability to cope with his feelings of anguish, the nurse felt isolated from her friends and family. She felt pushed away by an indifferent military system. But gradually, she sought help for her invisible wounds and found solace in connecting with other troops in her recovery program.

“I was the only female amongst all the guys,” she said. “And when they cried before me, that made me say to myself, ‘We’re all one.’ We all think the same way, we all have the same problems and the same issues, we all hurt the same way, we all bleed the same way. There’s no gender, there’s no different military job. There’s just a soldier.”

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