Last night, ACT ONE‘s MAKE SURE IT’S ME/nh project entered new terrain during our presentation at the Wiggin Memorial Library in Stratham. WARNING: LAST NIGHT WAS EPIC, AND SO IS THIS POST! Read on at your leisure. . .
First, we received a warm welcome from Tricia Ryden, the Assistant Director, who made our team and audience feel extremely comfortable (and provided great cookies–a crucial element of any successful event). Tricia, I can’t thank you and the other staff of the library enough for hanging with us from an early start until long past our allotted end time! As our audience assembled, I was delighted to see several of my personal heroes from the many months Steph and I have been researching TBI in veterans in New Hampshire. The conversations percolated before the presentation even started as people introduced themselves to each other–always a good sign.
Then, we presented. We laid out our mission to build civilian-military dialogue in our communities; we provided some basic information about blast-related TBI and its similarities to and differences from other forms of concussion. Then, Iraq war veteran and MSIM cast member Conan Marchi and Jenny Freeman of the Krempels Center and I enacted passages from Kate Wenner’s Make Sure It’s Me.
My heart is racing as I remember the atmosphere in that small meeting room when Conan, in the role of Army Staff Sergeant Mike Ames, began screaming at me (in the role of his wife Sandy). “You don’t understand anything, do you? I can’t make things stop! I can’t make things stop!”
In the post-show discussion, many members of the audience said that Conan’s performance was so truthful it was almost too much to take. There were at least two Iraq war veterans in the room (one of them female) who chose to “come out” about their difficulties readjusting after their combat experiences. They recognized Conan’s portrayal of the hyperarousal, explosive anger, and painful sense of isolation that characterize PTSD and TBI, especially when both are present. One extremely courageous veteran told us he almost couldn’t take watching our performance, but he was “activated” by the whole event and wanted to share his own story. He outlined for us the myriad losses he has experienced: combat buddies from New Hampshire who died; jobs he is no longer allowed to perform due to his PTSD and TBI; friends and family he can no longer communicate with comfortably; the lost sense of connection with his community, which doesn’t seem to hear or understand him; his lost masculine identity, which was so “amped up” during his deployment and now has been so eroded by his injuries and their aftermath. All he wants to do is work and support his family, but instead he has a constant horror movie in his mind which he can’t shut off. This man’s honesty and courage deeply moved me and I can only hope the experience was positive for him, in that he encountered a room full of people ready to listen and learn from him.
Other people who attended included a lovely Krempels member named Brie, who sat in the front row and gave Jenny and me big smiles throughout the evening, along with several thumbs up. Brie, thank you so much for coming and sharing your strength!
Al Porsche is a new and immediate hero of mine. A recently retired counselor from the Manchester Vet Center, and a Vietnam veteran himself, Al was a guest on the Exchange last week discussing the challenges facing Iraq War veterans. I tracked him down and was delighted to learn that he doesn’t mind gabbing with goofy theatre artists over coffee. In fact, his son is an actor, with a physical theatre background! So, happily, he was ready to give my project a hearing. In one conversation, Al provided me with great insights into the spiritual and moral conflicts facing veterans, which can further complicate their healing from the physical wounds of war. He shared some of those thoughts with us in Stratham last night, and we look forward to seeing him at the June production and hearing more of his articulate, compassionate observations.
Jon “Chief” Worrall was a very special guest last night! Chief is a veteran of multiple deployments in both the Navy and NH Army National Guard. I have been so inspired by his story that I nominated him for a 2013 Red Cross Hero award (which he won!). After 28 years of service, Chief was forced to retire due to grave injuries sustained while deployed in Iraq, including traumatic brain injury. While he will never fully recover, he found it tremendously healing to spend time at his camp in the North Country. And so, with his fellow veteran Jerry Goeden, Chief opened up his camp to wounded veterans suffering from TBI and other physical and psychological wounds. Called the Wounded Warriors @ 45 North, or the “Northern Goat Locker,” this camp is now a refuge for small groups of veterans, where they can fish, kayak, or simply rest in the company of others who understand them–and it is entirely free for the injured vets. You can learn more about his program here. Chief brought his lovely, poised daughter with him last night, and at her father’s urging, she told Conan, “You sounded just like Dad.” It was a great tribute, not only to our work with this performance, but also to Chief’s work with his family. He journeyed back from a really dark place to a space of rebuilding and helping others to rebuild.
Also in the room, expressing their concern for veterans, were folks from Pease Greeters, whose mission is “thanking our troops, one flight at a time,” no matter the hour of the day or night. You can check the flight schedule and learn how to participate here.
A dear friend who attended, and who has supported MSIM/nh from the beginning, quietly but clearly stated that she had learned a lot from the presentation to help her understand and support a family member who is presently serving in Afghanistan. A collective sigh greeted this news. Our love goes out to her and her family.
All of this discussion, revelation and sharing was captured on film last night by Deb Barry, founder and Executive Director of Awareness UNlimited. Deb attended last week’s presentation in Portsmouth and approached us afterwards with the offer to document MSIM/nh, an effort that will no doubt serve our community in many ways in the months to come. Steph and I are thrilled to be partnering with Deb in this way–stay tuned as we share the fruits of that collaboration!
As a last note, the Stratham presentation marked the debut of our MSIM stage manager, Kate Quisumbing! An accomplished actress and military family member, Kate brings many stellar qualities to this project and I’m thrilled to have her with us. If all this sounds exciting and you want in, join us in Manchester next Thursday, April 4 at 6:30! All of the details and schedules for the library series and the June production are gathered in one place here.
Now–we take a deep breath, and we march on. . .