By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
HAMPTON, Va., March 24, 2011 - The "F-bombs" fell fast and furiously yesterday at an otherwise perfectly proper gathering of military health care professionals here as they broke away from their lectures and academic exchanges to watch a documentary play about the challenges many of their patients struggle to overcome.
Navy Capt. Paul S. Hammer, director of the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury, introduced the play at the first Armed Forces Public Health Conference. Before the actors took their places on the stage, he warned the audience not to be surprised by the play's "salty" and "irreverent" humor.
"This is dialogue from real people and real characters. It is not a composite," he said. "It's about the very real human reaction to the stressful experiences of war and how that impacts the ability to integrate, all told in their own words. It's the use of the arts in telling the story and helping understand the experience."
Two of the major characters in the play are based on Ackerman's brothers who served with the Marine Corps in Iraq. One suffered from post-traumatic stress and even contemplated suicide after returning home, but was saved when his family intervened. The other was wounded in a roadside-bomb attack that killed his best friend and blinded another Marine.
Sanchez initially hired Joseph Harrell, a former Marine Corps drill instructor, as a military consultant to bring realism to the play. She ultimately signed him on to play the part of the commanding officer – a role Harrell said helped him realize that he, too, had long-undiagnosed post-traumatic stress that wasn't related to combat.
"From researching the character I played, from reading books, meeting clinicians, talking to people, I found out a lot about myself," he said. "And through the process, I started to find healing. I started to find answers, and I mapped out my entire life as a result of this play."
Harrell said he saw "ReEntry" have that same healing effect on the family of a friend as it helped them finally understand changes in him after he returned home from combat.
"That's why I am attached to this play and why I will always be attached to it -- because I know what it can do for people," he said. "There is not a person on this planet that can tell me this does not have healing properties. So I am in it. I am in it all the way."
"ReEntry" explores the many aspects of military service – the sacrifice, the pride, the unity its members feel:
-- A wounded Marine sees his combat wounds as a failure -- "the gunfight I lost" – and shares the pain of being determined unfit for service. "It stings," he said. "No matter how much you are expecting it, it stings."
-- A sister tells of sending care packages to her deployed brother and trying not to worry about him. She admits to saving his phone messages on the voice recorder. "It might be the last time I hear his voice," she said.
-- A commander worries that he's become impervious to death and developed a "stone mask" that hides what's really inside.
-- A mother shares her need to telephone the family of the fallen Marine who died in her son's arms and the one who was wounded in the attack.
-- A gunnery sergeant's wife says, "I am not just married to a Marine. We are a Marine family." And although she maintains a poker face to the world, she admits to going into the bathroom to cry in private without being discovered.
-- A Marine tells a comrade he thinks he has post-traumatic stress and assures him it's OK to go "straight to see the wizard."
Sanchez emphasized during a panel discussion following yesterday's performance that she doesn't intend "ReEntry" to speak for everyone's experiences. But Hammer called the very real human experiences portrayed in the play a valuable tool to help military members deal with conflict they may feel, and for others to better understand them.
"'ReEntry' is an example of the creative use of performing arts to further our understanding of the challenges faced by, as well as the strength and camaraderie of, our combat warriors and their families," he told the gathering.
The show made its military debut in May at the Navy and Marine Corps Combat Operational Stress Control Conference in San Diego, and is making the rounds at military bases and Veterans Affairs hospitals. The troupe presented it in November at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Va., where it received a standing ovation, and in February at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, S.C., where it was mandatory viewing for all drill instructors.
In September, "ReEntry" will go to Camp Lejeune, N.C., and eight family-day performances are on the schedule for reserve units.
"ReEntry" also played at civilian theaters in Red Bank, N.J., and Baltimore. It is scheduled to run in October at a civilian theater in Bethesda, Md., also home of the National Naval Medical Center, to be redesignated as the Walter Reed National Medical Center.
"It resonates with them," Hammer said. "It's telling the story, and allowing audiences to interact with the story."
One Army civilian health care provider fought back tears as she thanked Sanchez following yesterday's presentation for giving her new insights into the men and women she cares for every day.
"You opened my eyes and let me get inside their bodies," she said. "Now I will have a better understanding and appreciation of how they feel."