Hitting Close to Home
A few days after I landed back in Los Angeles, I was offered a two-person play about war veterans and the post-traumatic stress that inevitably follows.
"War & Therapy", a two person one-act by Paula J. Caplan, is about the discoveries and dynamic between a therapist and a young female war veteran.
A year ago I shot a short film on a similar topic called "Carla" about post-traumatic stress disorder in female war veterans who were the first to fight toe-to-toe in ground combat with their male counterparts.
I always play the same role at least twice; whether it's theatre, film, or television, it doesn't matter. Why? Don't ask me, ask the Universe. It's as if the Universe is saying:
"Okay, the first time was to get your feet wet; the second is to help plant them on different ground."
This second time around was definitely on different ground.
Her new book (soon to be released), "When Johnny and Jane Come Marching Home," deals with many postwar issues, particularly the mental health care of war veterans.
But "War & Therapy" was not performed in a theatre. It was performed at the National Mental Health Conference in Anaheim this year.
Alternatives 2010 is a strong political and reformative movement in the progression towards achieving actual mental health (in everyone, not just war vets), as opposed to temporarily subdued mental health from pill popping.
Apparently the government and pharmaceutical companies prefer the latter. Go figure.
Now...the project, "War & Therapy" focuses on a cause I believe in: the acknowledgement, appreciation and rehabilitation of our country's war veterans.
I am not an advocate of war. Personally, I think this country's recent wars have dangerously become another white noise in our multi-faceted media, and that's not a good thing.
Unfortunately much of today's young generation that would be protesting these wars -- like their Vietnam-protesting counterparts -- is more preoccupied with Reality TV as opposed to REALITY. Dangerous.
You can't ever come back. Maybe it's because I lived near the Veterans Hospital in New York for so many years.Or maybe it's because I see them here roaming the beaches of Los Angeles, lost, strung-out, gone forever, but I can't not see them.
As an actress, I believe it's our duty to speak out for the things we believe in, to give voice to a people or cause who otherwise would remain unheard.
And as a person, I cannot even begin to imagine or understand the gargantuan betrayal some of our soldiers must feel when they come home and are ignored or marginalized by the very system and people they sacrificed their lives to fight for during the prime of their youth.
These men and women -- these young men and women -- ship off, leave, are brainwashed to kill strangers (the enemy, what have you) when they should be at home living, busying themselves with being lovers, husbands, friends, brothers, sisters, etc.
"War & Therapy" argues that while being diagnosed with PTSD (giving the pain a label) can make it easier to cope with, it can also distance the victims from their pain, as opposed to healing themselves of it.
And having a mental disorder in a person's medical records can back fire on them in the future, making it harder for them to qualify for other needs down the line.
Caplan believes that having extreme emotional trauma post war is normal, not a disorder. What would not be normal is a soldier coming back as if they had never even gone to war in the first place. I have to admit, her logic makes sense to me.
How would it feel to realize that the only place you can now function in, is the very same place that took you away from the self you once were and the home you once knew?
Even actors who play psychotic killers, addicts, and schizophrenics need to cleanse themselves of whatever they experience while inhabiting the life of their characters.
But getting back to the show....
After the play's performance, during the Q&A, a few war vets in the audience confessed for the first time how years later, the triggers remain powerful and active: "...And then suddenly, I'm back there again. Just like that."
Talk about sensory work.
The few veterans whom we reached out to that day were brave and grateful. I was grateful to them, for obvious reasons, and hoped that I had delivered an accurate portrayal of what their inner life must be.
Then I get a text. Ironically enough, two years ago I reconnected with a fellow alumnus, Cam, who ended up in the Marines as opposed to continuing his pursuits in musical theatre. The story was called "The Making of a Marine."
I had felt when I reconnected with Cam that he seemed unusually well-adjusted given his three tours of Iraq and his time in Fallujah. Unfortunately, I was right.
I sent Cam a text message earlier that day telling him I was in his area performing a play on the off-chance that he might be able to swing by. Maybe he was in Afghanistan already? I wasn't sure. This was his text response:
"Just got out of rehab for that myself. The government treats PTSD in people like it's taking a truck to get fixed at the shop. They want to preserve your career as much as they can, and when they can't they'll crucify you."
Talk about life imitating art imitating life, no less than one beat later!
Cam has been in battle since 9/11; that's over nine years of ground combat. And even though the flashbacks have been occurring since 2003, he's only been in treatment for them the past two months.When I asked him why he waited so long to seek treatment, he blatently said:
"If you go see a shrink that means you have a problem, and if you have a problem you are considered sick and you won't be able to deploy or work anymore."
Herein lies the Catch 22, the argument of the play, and the dilemna for soldiers making a living while at the same time trying to stay alive. Cam's real life dilemna proves the argument in Caplan's play.
Cam has served as a Captain and overseen many soldiers under his command struggle with post-traumatic stress:
"I've had the perspective of someone who's not only been a patient, but someone who's also been in command. Now the policy allows people to be able to come forward and get help for issues like this, for PTSD or alcoholism (which in most cases are inevitably linked), because the government is running us into the ground."
Routine health and mental health evaluations post-combat have become mandatory only in the last year.
"It's a shame that we in the military culture haven't been able to identify people who need help. It's usually not until the person is in the process of destroying themselves that the problem is brought to the forefront, as it was for me."
When Cam returned home, his wife was the one thing that kept him from blowing his brains out. How's that for an army wife?
It is the guilt that keeps Cam awake most nights. And yet, despite the mental and emotional consequences, he says he'd still do it all over again.
"My problem is not going to other countries to be in battle. My problem now is trying to live in the country that I came from, normally. If I was told to go to Afghanistan tomorrow, you'd probably see my blood pressure go down."
"Now, I'm just trying to enjoy my life and figure out how to be a decent human being. I have a view of the ocean from my patio, and I've got to learn how to enjoy it before the lease is up."
He plans to stay in SoCal after his medical evaluation, pursue a career in federal law enforcement and, most importantly, rebuild his family life with "the Mrs." Much like the characters in the play, Cam realizes that the battle for peace of mind starts at home.
When are human beings going to start treating each other like human beings?! When will we realize we are organic creatures that need nurturing as opposed to robots, trucks, and computers that can be turned on and off with a switch?
If a computer has a broken chip in its 'brain/hard drive' you replace it. You reboot. But you can't reboot a human being.
If a human being has brain damage, or is experiencing the more appropriately termed 'shell-shock' or 'war trauma,' you can't pop a pill to make it all better.
The memories are in our tissues, our muscles. And once the pill stops being popped, those memories will resurface, and some will be lost forever. Then what?
The pain needs to be wrung out somehow, like old water from a dishrag, or it will continue to weigh on us as we carry it around.
There is a difference between being 'medicated' and being 'healed'. A pill or diagnosis will medicate the condition, but it will not heal it.
Funny thing is, as Caplan stated at Alternatives during the Q&A:
"Everyone has so many suggestions for how to take care of and rehabilitate our soldiers when they come home -- therapy, acupuncture, rehabilitation -- but no one suggests the one obvious solution: no more war."
I know it is mine.
But if war, as we know it today, is so inherent in human nature, wouldn't our returning soldiers have a more natural time knowing how to be 'human' again?
Maybe these wars aren't being fought on our home soil, but they sure as hell are hitting close to home. That's the REALITY on TV.
(photos courtesy of punchstock.com, Paula J. Caplan, Dorset Theatre Festival, and Alternatives 2010)
Yours Truly -- Ann Hu