Iraq, Afghanistan War Vets Find Relief in the Footlights

LOS ANGELES – The house lights go down and the stage lights come up on The Wolf, the first production of VetStage, a nonprofit theater company run by veterans of the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It opens with a funeral: a Roman Catholic priest preparing to deliver a eulogy for a U.S. soldier killed by a roadside bomb.

Quickly, the scene changes and we’re transported to a group therapy session under way at military mental institution. It’s here that we meet our two main characters. Both are members of the Marine Corps facing courts-martial. The first is a female soldier accused of killing a fellow Marine after he raped her. The second is on trial for massacring an entire Iraqi family in their home.

The therapy session does not go well.

“A lot of f*cked-up sh*t happened in combat, that’s what I think, supershrink,” a third solider in the therapy session tells the military psychiatrist. “You know what? I’m tired, so why don’t we move on.”

The play’s author and lead actor and the founder of VetStage is Sean Huze. He signed up for the Marine Corps on Sept. 12, 2001 – the day after the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. – and served as an infantryman during the initial invasion and occupation of Iraq in March 2003.

The Louisiana native had already worked as an actor playing bit parts in commercials and television shows before enlisting. Immediately after he returned he wrote a play called The Sand Storm, a series of 10 monologues describing the Iraq war from the soldiers’ perspective. Huze said that play helped him work through psychological issues he had returning to the United States after serving in Iraq.

Then, in Los Angeles, he founded VetStage, which seeks to present “one of the best opportunities for our nation’s veterans to define their experience and how it is perceived by the public. In addition to that, it provides a positive, creative outlet for veterans to process their personal experience, enable them to make an artistic contribution to society, and ease the transition back into civilian life,” states its Web site.

The Wolf is VetStage’s first production, in association with the organization Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Huze told IPS he was drawn to write The Wolf when he saw how the U.S. government and the media reacted to a Marine Corps massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians at Haditha in November 2005.

“Some lance corporal is going to do 10 years in the brig or longer, and in the meantime the people who train Marines to do it, that condition Marines to do this, basically get off,” he said. “They hang the individuals out to dry when really they’re doing what they’re trained and conditioned to do. That’s why I took this kind of route with this play.”

Near the end of the first act, the two soldiers break out of the mental institution, but they can’t lie low – violence seems to follow them wherever they go.

This is how the play’s main character describes the massacre he perpetrated to his local priest: “They were sheep,” he says, “and I am a wolf and I did what wolves do and that’s what I told ’em and that’s why they keep me locked up.”

“And what about now – you’re still a wolf?” the priest asks.

“You can’t turn someone from a sheep into a wolf and then back again, so where does that leave me now?”

Karl Risinger is a member of the VetStage company and a U.S. Army veteran who trained soldiers before their deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I like the production,” he said. “I think it’s a story that needs to be told. [Veterans] have been programmed and trained and they’re soldiers, and suddenly they get out of the military and they’re home to normal life and they don’t have to go through the normal regimens they have to go through in the military.”

“They’re dealing with the stuff they’ve done during their military careers,” he added. “Nobody really knows how to deprogram a soldier.”

The Wolf is a decidedly antiwar play, focusing not only on the conditions soldiers face after they come home, but also attacking the George W. Bush administration’s reasons for attacking Iraq. Still, Huze told IPS, the theater company isn’t only for veterans who think the war is wrong.

“There are veterans who are part of VetStage who are conservatives who voted for Bush twice,” he said, noting the organization also offers acting and play-writing classes designed to help vets improve their skills and integrate better back into U.S. society.

“Certainly for me, even though those aren’t viewpoints that I hold, if they’re vets who are involved in this who still have issues they want to work through and help them with writing, they’re able to do something artistically [and] it helps them to transition back to being a civilian or a citizen.”

“I just care if they’re military,” he said, “and if they are, I want to help ’em out.”

(Inter Press Service)