News & Notes from Around the World: Memorial Day Edition

Sather Air Base is a memorial itself, named for Scott Sather who was the first Airman to be killed in action in OIF. The Scott Sather memorial was dedicated last year and this was the first Memorial Day to further honor him and everyone else who has served with the same distinction as Scott Sather.

Baghdad, Iraq – While millions of Americans take a day of from work to reflect and enjoy each others company, the aerial port of Baghdad and the USO, that serves the 1000 passengers a day, were working at full speed. “Mission Critical” is when important work takes priority above all else, but the meaning of this day is too important to over look.

USO Duty Manager, Courtney Haueter, lead the National Moment of Remembrance and the entire aerial port staff, passengers and visitors paused for a full minute at 3:00pm local time. USO customers ceased all calls, IMs, games and movies while the military crew of Sather Air Base paused operations during that time.

Commanding Officer of the 447th, Col Bruce Taylor USAF, led the Memorial Day ceremony and spoke of heroes gone and not forgotten.  Honor Guard for both the Air Force and Army took part in the remembrance and did outstanding work in saluting their brothers in arms.

An essay by Theater of War‘s Bryan Doerries in today’s Washington Post – 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…

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… Click here to read the full essay.

From Snag Film’s Rick Allen – “For 99% of Americans, Memorial Day is a chance to circle a barbeque grill; for us, it’s about gathering together in a cemetery.” Probably nothing captures the enormous gulf between how veterans and civilians treat Monday’s national holiday than that quick but pointed reminder I heard Wednesday from Paul Rieckhoff.  Paul is the charismatic founder of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and author of the acclaimed book Chasing Ghosts, about his tour of duty in Iraq.  As most of us celebrate the “official” start of summer this weekend, hopefully the words of Paul Rieckhoff, or the roar of Rolling Thunder, or the quiet comfort that the USO brings every day to service families, will break through our routine.

My generation was the first beneficiary of our modern volunteer armed service, in the sense that no longer would all able-bodied men be expected to spend time in uniform.  The ability to outsource our service keeps us personally untouched by combat, but raises societal issues and comes with countervailing personal trade-offs. Sebastian Junger’s new book War and his companion film Restrepo vividly detail the depth of camaraderie that come from absolute commitment to the safety of your fellow squad members.  Those of us around our family barbeques can instinctively appreciate how common mortal danger binds brothers and sisters-in-arms; our challenge now is to find better ways to hold our veterans close to the whole community and to demonstrate our appreciation for what they’ve given for our freedoms.

IAVA joins many other governmental and non-profit organizations in working on the full range of issues facing today’s returning warriors. At a time when our economy struggles to produce new jobs, an estimated 30% of veterans of our current conflicts are out of work.  The Veterans Administration is more invigorated under Secretary Shinseki than it has been in many decades – but a huge number of vets, particularly the young ones, will never willingly walk into a VA hospital or ask for government help, despite what may be significant need.

Many organizations are hard at work to bridge these gaps. The USO assists service members and their families around the world. IAVA has created an incredible online community of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan operations, and advocates for federal action on jobs, health, education and other pressing vet issues. There are various levels of government that deliver services as well as recreational opportunities to active duty warriors and their families, and veterans.  But more is needed, from our society collectively and each of us individually.

Leon Cooper will be on CNN Monday morning. Leon is 90, a WWII vet living in Los Angeles and working with a consistency and energy of someone in his 20s. That’s how old he was at Tarawa, one of the bloodiest battles in Marine Corps history. Leon returned to that atoll when he learned that the beach that held the bones of his fallen comrades was now a garbage dump for islanders without arable land for alternatives.  His final campaign is captured in the film Return to Tarawa, which you can watch here.  Thanks to Leon’s indomitability, the power of the film, and the tools of SnagFilms, Congress last year directed the Department of Defense to identify the remains on Red Beach and bring them home.  In two months, the DOD teams will wing west to begin a task of memory and responsibility we have deferred for nearly 7 decades.

Kyle Maynard spends significant time working with wounded warriors.  An exceptional athlete honored with an ESPY and a shelf of other awards, best-selling author and motivational speaker, Kyle was born without complete limbs.  His motto, “No Excuses”, completely encapsulates how he lives his life. (A new film about Kyle will air on ESPN in November and you can learn more here.) Not long ago, I spent an afternoon at Ft. Myer, Virginia, with Kyle and a group of Iraq and Afghanistan vets with serious physical injuries resulting from their service.  We gathered around an exercise mat, and Kyle put the six men and one woman through a daunting workout – but from my fly-on-the-wall vantage point, the greatest outcome of the day came from the conversation among the participants.  The service members joining Kyle knew he only had a civilian’s perspective … but they also knew that his physical challenges had been life-long. They had in common much more than what they lacked; each was working every minute to turn loss into motivation, not cause for withdrawal.

We too need to make an effort, each in our own way. Memorial Day provides many such opportunities.  At the very least, it provides the chance for reflection and appreciation. Our founder, Ted Leonsis, coined the term “filmanthropy” to combine the communication power of film with the interactivity of the web, and allow an engaged audience new ways to start a conversation or take an action. We’ve pulled 11 films together from different conflicts and perspectives for Memorial Day – you can watch them from the widget below, or at http://bit.ly/SnagMemorialDay .  Enjoy them alone or with others. And make your Memorial Day into something to remember.

Ground-Breaking Project Theater of War Travels to Germany

Jeffrey Wright recites the words of Ajax as David Strathairn and Gloria Reuben look on. Theater of War presented a reading of the play in New York City, November 2009. (Photo by Paxton Winters)

Since 2008, Theater of War has presented readings of Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes to military communities across the United States. These ancient plays timelessly and universally depict the psychological and physical wounds inflicted upon warriors by war. By presenting these plays to military audiences, our hope is to de-stigmatize psychological injury and open a safe space for dialogue about the challenges faced by service members, veterans, and their caregivers and families, as well as their resiliency.

It has been suggested that ancient Greek drama was a form of storytelling, communal therapy, and ritual reintegration for combat veterans by combat veterans. Sophocles himself was a general. The audiences for whom these plays were performed were undoubtedly comprised of citizen-soldiers and the performers themselves were most likely veterans or cadets. Seen through this lens, ancient Greek drama appears to have become elaborate ritual aimed at helping combat veterans return to civilian life after deployments during a century that saw 80 years of war.

Plays like Sophocles’ Ajax and Philoctetes read like textbook descriptions of wounded warriors, struggling under the weight of psychological and physical injuries to maintain their dignity, identity, and honor. Given this context, it seemed natural that military audiences today might have something to teach us about the impulses behind these ancient stories. It also seemed like these ancient stories would have something important and relevant to say to military audiences.

Over the past year, we have enjoyed the privilege of performing for the U.S. Marine Corps, West Point cadets, homeless veterans, Army Posts, and the Department of Defense. Each reading has been followed by a town hall style audience discussion, which has been facilitated with the help of military community members. These have been arresting, emotionally-charged events, in which service members have spoken openly about their experiences in combat and at home.

Theater of War is currently touring in Germany through May 25th, where our USO Family Centers have supported our performances:
25 MAY 10; (Tuesday) 0900 AND 1630 HRS; GRAFENWOEHR, Grafenwoehr Field House, Bldg. 354

26 MAY10; (Wednesday) 0900 AND 1630 HRS; HOHENFELS, Post Theater, Bldg. 3

Theater of War also returns Stateside in June, at the following locations:
June 8 and 9, 2010 – Fort Leonard Wood, MO

June 24, 2010 – Army War College, PA

June 29 and 30, 2010 – Naval Special Warfare, Little Creek, VA

For updated information about the project, including performance times for the locations listed above, please visit our website: www.theater-of-war.com

The opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of Theater of War and do not necessarily reflect those of the USO.  You can also follow Theater of War on Facebook and Twitter!

“Theater of War” Connects Ancient Warfare to Modern, Facilitating Healing Along the Way

Sophocles may not be the household name he once was, but the Greek playwright offers some surprising insights into today’s military experience. Through the plays Ajax and Philoctetes,Theater of War”  aims to bring a sense of connectivity between ancient warriors and modern, with a belief that some elements of war are timeless.

According to Theater of War, “By presenting these plays to military audiences, our hope is to de-stigmatize psychological injury and open a safe space for dialogue about the challenges faced by service members, veterans, and their caregivers and families.”

Theater of War

First Sgt. Lorenzo Zamora draws parallels from his personal experiences to the characters in ancient plays before an audience that includes the brass at Fort Drum, N.Y. (Photo by Gary Walts for USA TODAY)

Featured recently on PBS Newshour, “Theater of War” brings together experiences and well-known actors of screen and stage for readings of these classic texts in front of military audiences as well as their health care providers.  They have also recently partnered with the Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury (DCoE), with the hopes of creating a meaningful experience for wounded warriors, veterans, and those who care for them.  View an interview with director-creator Brian Doerries below and click here to view the entire Newshour segment:


more about “Art Beat | Wednesday on the N…“, posted with vodpod

As Sophocles wrote in Philoctetes, “War never takes a wicked man by chance, the good man always.”  The bravery of those who chose to serve their country – no matter what century – deserves to be acknowledged and appreciated.  Look for an upcoming performance near you:

March 5 and 6, 2010
Naval Special Warfare Command, San Diego, CA

March 9, 10 and 11, 2010
Camp Pendleton, San Diego, CA

March 12, 2010
Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego, CA

March 24, 2010
Fort Polk, New Orleans, LA

March 26, 2010
HQ BN MARFORRES, New Orleans, LA