War, first-hand: Military vets and relatives share their stories on stage

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For most Americans, the realities of war  — the violence, the sacrifices, the loss — are images on a television screen from a distant country. We hear about war on the news, but we don’t hear the personal side, up-close, from those who lived it. 

We don’t hear from a mother, such as Tracy Miller, whose son was killed in action. We don’t hear about that knock on her door, about the news that altered her life forever. 

That’s about to change. 

On Friday at Towson University, seven people — mostly veterans — whose lives have been touched by war will let the audience know the truth. The unvarnished truth. 

“This play is a very moving experience because you realize, when you’re in the audience, how brave these vets are to take this step,” said B.R. McDonald, executive director of Baltimore’s Veteran Artist Program (VAP). “They’re telling stories they haven’t told before. They’re talking about friends and colleagues being killed in combat. I think that this format is a great way to sit and let the veterans tell it themselves without any media spin on it. It’s about redefining who the veteran is in our community.”

This weekend will be the first Baltimore-area performance of the nationally known Telling Project, in which local veterans and their families are encouraged to share their stories. 

For McDonald, a former Army special operations soldier was in Afghanistan only a month ago, the performance will have special significance, because of the death of terrorist leader Osama bin Laden. 

“Emotion is visceral — it just reminds all of the reasons that we joined the military,” he said. “Bin Laden’s death has brought renewed attention to the sacrifice and day-to-day grind of what the military does on a daily basis. Most people consider this a victory. And literally, for the past decade, people have dedicated their lives — their careers — for this moment because of what happened on 9/11.”

For most of the cast, their military experiences are related to post-9/11 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, McDonald said. 

“It puts them in a spotlight — that’s good because they become the subject matter experts,” he said. “They become the people we want to listen to because they were there, they served, and they took up the challenge after 9/11.”

In “Telling: Baltimore,” area veterans and military relatives work from a script that has been transcribed from their own words based on extensive interviews.

Each veteran’s story resembles a monologe, creating a very personal experience for both the actor and the audience. 

The diverse cast includes stories from a Desert Storm veteran, the mother of a fallen marine, and a “don’t ask, don’t tell” veteran. 

McDonald said about 30 veterans volunteered for the play, including retirees, those on active duty, and those with loved ones in the military. 

That number was eventually whittled down to the current cast which includes Erin Byers (active duty), Cate Conroy (Army veteran), Jeremy Johnson (Navy veteran), Miller (mother of Marine KIA), Elijah Sacra (Marine Corps veteran), Meghan Young (wife of Marine Corps veteran), and Patrick Young (Marine Corps veteran).

One of those veterans is Patrick Young who served in the Marine Corps Infantry for four years. Young is also Towson University’s coordinator of veteran services, and said participating in the play was a unique experience, especially because he was playing himself.

“Stories are told all the time and things get lost in translation,” he said. “That’s what makes this special — it’s being told to you. It’s raw, in your face, and it’s something that people haven’t seen before.”

Young, whose wife Meghan is also in the play, shared his experiences of boot camp and his relationship with Cpl. Nicholas Ziolkowski, a fellow Marine who was killed in combat. Ziolkowski’s mother, Miller, is in the play as well.

Heather Mayes, the VAP artistic director, had a great amount of respect for the performers — she’s a professional actor herself, but she also has her share of military connections. 

Mayes’ grandfather was a Navy World War II veteran, her father is a Navy veteran also, and her husband is an Army veteran.

“Being able to translate that into my artform is a huge gift,” she said. 

Bringing their stories to life on the stage had its share of emotional moments, however. 

Mayes said she was in tears during some of the rehearsals because the stories were so compelling. It was likely therapeutic for the performers as well.

“There is a good amount of therapy involved in any art form, and theater is unique in that way because you’re actually accessing emotions if you allow yourself to,” Mayes said. 

As much as being in the play could bring closure to past experiences, the performers also had to risk re-opening old wounds. 

“It can be a double-edged sword if you don’t want to open that door again, but I don’t think that any of the performers would be doing this if they didn’t want to go there,” she said. “These seven decided to go out on stage and take that risk emotionally.”

It was a risk that was worth taking according to Young, even if only one person in the crowd got something from the performances.

“The best thing would be if someone in the audience who’s dealing with their own issues sees how we dealt with what we went through and reassess what they’re going through with their family as well,” Young said. 

If you go 

What: Telling: Baltimore

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: Stephens Hall, Towson University, 8000 York Road

Tickets: $10; $5 students

Buy: towson.edu/artscalendar or 410.704.2787

 

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