another great MSIM day!

On March 7th, I had the good fortune to present the traveling version of Kate Wenner’s MAKE SURE IT’S ME at the Manchester VA Medical Center as part of Brain Injury Awareness Month. Thanks once again to Nina Romano and Erica Rowe for organizing the event, and to John, Matt, Martin and Kim for reading with me and sharing your reactions and personal reflections on the challenges of coping with combat-related trauma. As always, it wouldn’t be possible without playwright Kate Wenner’s permission to use her work royalty-free in support of the veterans grappling with TBI and PTSD–Kate, you are still my hero! I have to let my bias show now by saying that one of the best parts was the company of Jasmine, a service dog specializing in mitigating the effects of PTSD. She certainly helped soothe the atmosphere as we discussed troubling topics. Here’s a picture of Jasmine getting ready for the presentation, to help smooth your way today!

MSIM returns–and much more!

MSIMVetCenterflyer162016 has been a busy year, so busy that I haven’t been writing on this blog too much.  Most of the work I have been doing involves upcoming events supporting veterans and their families.  I’m thrilled to say that my traveling version of MAKE SURE IT’S ME will return to the Manchester Vet Center on September 29th.  I will be joined there by a cast of 5 veterans to read dramatic scenes from Kate Wenner’s play, as well as VA Manchester clinicians to help me address questions about Traumatic Brain Injury and PTSD.  Then, on October 20th I will take it to UNH, where my readers will be members of the Student Armed Forces Association, joined by some Theatre majors.  That promises to be a winning combination!  The research and treatment options for TBI and PTSD keep evolving, so whenever I pull this presentation out I retool my framing material to reflect recent developments.  It’s also extremely fun for me to work with the coordinators and readers as different venues, as well as to meet the audiences and mediate the conversation on performance day.  So I’m looking forward to both of those events.

CS logoI have also had the honor of serving as Humanities Expert for Community Stories: Soldiers Home & Away, a nine-week event series celebrating, commemorating and supporting veterans and military families across 8 libraries in Southern NH, as well as Timberlane School District.  The event series runs September 16 through November 12. My duties to this project have included helping the amazing group of library officials on the committee to write the grant proposal for the New Hampshire Humanities (which was successful, thank you NHH!);  helping to identify presenters and keep a “humanities” angle across the event series;  and I’ll be contributing to the “after-action” report to NHH about how Community Stories fulfilled its mission.  I am also involved in three of the events: I will present a brand new presentation, “Staging War: Veterans’ Voices in Post-9/11 Theatre” at the Plaistow Public Library on October 4;  I will mediate a book discussion of “Either the Beginning or the End of the World” will the glorious author Terry Farish on October 27th in Hampstead;  and I will be co-presenting the final keynote presentation on November 12th, “War Trauma: A Changing Story”, with neurologist Dr. James Whitlock.  That final presentation will include some readings from MSIM, aided by veteran and former Vet Center counselor Al Porsche.

So that’s a lot of exciting work I’ve been putting together, with fantastic and inspiring collaborators.

I have also been invited to do several more ongoing projects:  The NHH Humanities To Go program has selected my new presentation for their catalog.  In response to their feedback, the title is slightly different from the one in Community Stories, but it will be effectively the same format: “Speaking of War: How Theatre Gives Voice to Combat Veterans.”  (It’s always tricky to figure out appealing titles.)  Once the presentation is in the catalog, it remains to be seen if anyone wants me to bring it to their library or meeting hall.  So stay tuned!

I have also been hired as an actor by PowerPlay Interactive Development.  PowerPlay was founded by UNH Theatre Department Chair David Kaye.  It is a UNH sponsored business that uses Applied Theatre techniques to address issues like corporate culture, gender bias, harassment, and diversity for clients who include university departments, nonprofits and corporations.  So far, I have worked on four improv-based workshops for Easter Seals in Manchester;  in November, I will be traveling to the University of Virginia to present a combination of scripted material and improv addressing biases and potential conflicts in faculty hiring.  This is extremely challenging, fascinating work!  I am learning a lot and, once again, working with a great group of people that includes David Kaye, CJ Lewis and Susan Poulin.

Lastly for now, I am pleased to have been cast in New Hampshire Theatre Project‘s winter show, METAMORPHOSES, directed by Genevieve Aichele.  Rehearsals begin in November.  Phew, that’s a lot!!!

HAVENlogoIn the meantime, my Board work for HAVEN is ongoing, so don’t be surprised if I tap your shoulder in a fundraising campaign.  Best wishes to all as we move into Autumn!

MSIM/nh phase one complete!

Eric St. Cyr as LCpl Kevin Daniels in ACT ONE’s Make Sure It’s Me

Well, it’s finally here, the moment when I can say MISSION ACCOMPLISHED after the successful conclusion of MAKE SURE IT’S ME/nh–part 1!

ACT ONE’s 2012-2013 season included TWENTY-TWO events inspired by and based on Kate Wenner’s play about Traumatic Brain Injury in the military:

  • a meet-the-playwright teaser event last October at WEST
  • a full reading of the script at Portsmouth Public Library last November
  • FIVE library presentations in March and April


  • FIFTEEN performances of the world premiere production at WEST in June!

Angela Molihan as SSG Annie Nichols and Christian Maurice as HM Jackson Cantrell

We hosted 590 audience members for the WEST production, and more than 200 for our teaser and library events–that’s a total of 800 people who participated in MSIM/nh!

Our audiences included military veterans of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam, Korea, and even WWII. Post-9/11 veterans were offered free tickets and all others were offered discounts. Many took us up on our offers–over 12% of our audience claimed veterans’ tickets. But even more told us they had served but wanted to pay full price to support our mission of serving military families coping with blast-related TBI. So the actual number of veterans who came to watch, to learn, and to share their stories and opinions with us was closer to 15%. We were delighted and humbled to host so many who had served, as well as their family members.

Kim Holliday as Sandy Ames

We also met audience members living with brain injury, or working in the health care or teaching fields where they advocated for the injured. We spoke with numerous concerned civilians who said we made the news reports they had been hearing for years suddenly come alive with meaning for them. I personally received so many hugs, so many hand shakes, and so many confidences from brave, struggling people of all backgrounds that it was difficult to take it all in. But we knew from the very first MSIM/nh event that we were doing important work and it was affecting people in positive ways.

Alissa Cordeiro as Angel Rodriguez

Well, our community is not letting us off the hook now. ACT ONE has been asked by our audience members, and the NH National Guard, and the NH Commission on PTSD & TBI, and the Military-Civilian TBI Collaborative, and numerous other organizations with whom we’ve come to partner with in the past year and a half, to please continue this work in some fashion in the year to come. And so we are putting plans in place to do just that, by expanding and refining our traveling presentation to reach the far corners of our state (and maybe beyond?). Playwright Kate Wenner is collaborating with us on all aspects of this effort, and I will keep you posted on our development process and event schedule.

To read more about all things MSIM/nh, and to see more great pictures, visit the MSIM/nh page. Thanks again to all of you for joining me and ACT ONE in what has been an extraordinary theatrical outreach initiative. Stay tuned. . . and in the meantime. . .

Come see some great theatre at WEST during ACT ONE’s Festival 2013!

MSIM in the news, on the airwaves!

WHERE DO I START? The MSIM/nh event series has continued to move across the state. Through our Library Presentations based on Kate Wenner’s play, Make Sure It’s Me, we are sharing facts about blast-induced Traumatic Brain Injury and helping to connect military families with resources that can help. Most importantly, it turns out, we are creating safe spaces for veterans and their families to talk about their experiences with TBI, PTSD, and their journeys through recovery. Our library team is made up of an Iraq War veteran and Purple Heart recipient (Conan Marchi); the Joint Medical Planner and Occupational Health Nurse for the NH National Guard (Lt. Col. Steph Riley); a certified brain injury specialist from the Krempels Center (Jenny Freeman); and two deeply moved theatre artists who are honored to be of service to military families (my ACT ONE Executive Director Stephanie Voss Nugent and me).

As you may have read in my previous post, our visits to the Portsmouth and Stratham libraries were warmly received and eye-opening. They also garnered us some media attention! Sam Adams, news reporter from WOKQ, attended the Portsmouth presentation and promptly invited us into the radio booth for an interview. And so, last week, I brought Steph Riley and Conan Marchi with me to the WOKQ studio and we recorded a 27-minute interview which aired yesterday, April 7th, at 6:30 a.m. and 11:30 p.m. Sadly, it is not available as a podcast, but I hope to wrangle a recording out of Sam that we can post here. Stay tuned for that! Sam was a marvelous interviewer. He made us feel really comfortable as we talked about the issues surrounding TBI in service members. Then we read one scene from Kate’s play–I think it sounded great, and we’ve heard good reviews from those hardy souls who started their day really early or were awake really late to catch the show! Big thanks to WOKQ for the opportunity and to Steph R. and Conan for their willingness to follow this project wherever it needs to go. . .

The same afternoon as the radio interview, we headed over to Manchester for our library presentation there. That’s when we learned that Barbara Taormina, a reporter who had attended the Stratham event, had gotten a great article placed in the Union Leader! So you don’t have to take my word for how powerful these events are turning out to be, you can read all about it here. Thanks so much to Barbara for this coverage, and for the wonderful photo of Jon “Chief” Worrall and his daughter Krista which illustrated the story.

The Manchester visit itself deserves a moment of quiet reflection. There, we were gratified by the participation of a young Iraq War veteran and his mother. (His service dog came, too!) This bright, determined little family shared with us their stories of his injuries, the personality changes that followed, and the hard, hard work of negotiating treatment through the VA. Although he has finally received helpful diagnosis and care, this veteran illustrated for us how overworked and understaffed the VA is, and how stressful it is to endure the paperwork, the phone calls, the questions, the repetitions, and the plain old red tape of the VA’s health care system. It is difficult to imagine how anyone manages to jump through those hoops while coping with combat-induced stress or brain injury. Clearly, having his mother by his side was crucial to his recovery.

In dialogue with our team, and with that brave Iraq veteran, was a group of Vietnam vets who also took the opportunity to open up about their pain and losses in the wake of war. As the conversation expanded, I was able to step back a bit as mediator and listen to the young veteran and his older counterparts swap stories. Two of the Vietnam vets told the young man, “We didn’t have the courage to go back–we could never have done these multiple deployments like you did.” And he said, “But you didn’t have the choice, you were drafted–that was worse.” Back and forth it went, the comparing and contrasting of experiences, the finding of common ground, and the expressions of mutual respect. There were tears. It was a tough discussion–but, once again, we had to be booted from the library when closing time came!

Woven through these amazing experiences of the past week have been my first three rehearsals with the full cast of Make Sure It’s Me, which takes to the West End Studio Theatre in its full glory in June. I can’t properly express my gratitude to playwright Kate Wenner and my “boss” Steph Nugent for trusting me to direct this project. We have lots to accomplish–choreography of stage combat with a wheelchair included? Check! Costuming characters from various branches of the service in a time period (2005) when uniforms were changing? Gotta get it right! Keeping the former Marine and former Army members of my cast from breaking out in a fist-fight? Just kidding, that won’t happen, it’s a total love fest on the set of MSIM. Sound good to you? Then stay tuned.

And join us in Nashua on April 18 and Hampton on April 23rd for our final (and free!) library presentations. You can check out the whole event schedule, and more MSIM/nh information here. Or you can call 603-300-2986 or visit the ACT ONE site for reservations.

bonds forged in Stratham

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.

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. . .

coming to a library near you!

I AM SO EXCITED! Make Sure It’s Me/nh is almost ready to launch! Our community discussions on Traumatic Brain Injury began in fall 2012 with two early workshop readings from Kate Wenner’s play, Make Sure It’s Me. Now, in advance of our full production of the play this coming June, our Library Presentation series begins on March 18th at the Portsmouth Public Library. I’ll be joined there by MSIM/nh cast member US Army Sgt. Conan Marchi (ret.) and Jenny Freeman of the Krempels Center. We’ll be sharing some basic information about the “invisible wounds” experienced by our service members exposed to IED blasts–and how these injuries can be exacerbated by multiple concussions of various kinds or become intertwined with symptoms of PTSD. And we’ll be reading selected scenes from the play that illustrate the effects of TBI on service members and their families.

Jenny and Conan will stick with me for visits to Straham and Hampton. For our forays to Manchester and Nashua, Conan and I will have the company of Lt. Col. Stephanie Riley of the New Hampshire National Guard. For the full schedule of events, please see our updated MSIM page.

I’m also delighted to present an extremely special resource ACT ONE has created for all of our events: the MSIM TBI Fact Sheet. Compiled with assistance from the NH Commission on PTSD & TBI; the Brain Injury Association of New Hampshire; The Military-Civilian TBI Collaborative; the Manchester VA; Easter Seals; our state’s Military Transition Assistance Advisor, Lisa Aldridge; Dr. James Whitlock of Northeast Rehab; and NH DHHS Bureau Chief of Community Based Military Programs Jo Moncher, this Fact Sheet will be distributed at every MSIM/nh event thanks to the generous support of the American Red Cross for our first printing of 4000 sheets. The electronic version of the MSIM TBI Fact Sheet is here to be shared and used by all–go ahead, you know you want to share it! But, when you do, please remember that we are getting oodles of them into the hands of military and civilian families this spring because the Red Cross was there when we asked for help. And I must give a special shout-out to Ian Dyer, Emergency Services Director for the NH Region of the ARC, for pushing this project through (and for being an all-around cool guy). How many people can honestly say, “Yes, I secured funding for a theatre outreach project aimed at helping veterans WHILE ALSO RESPONDING TO HURRICANE SANDY”!?!?!?!

So, share the Fact Sheet. Check our event schedule. And then, please join us in support of all our local heroes at the libraries in March and April, and at the West End Studio Theatre in June.

running, jumping, climbing trees

My favorite comedian, Eddie Izzard, likes to describe the military and its attractions as “running, jumping, climbing trees”. (Izzard is also frequently a cross-dresser, so he likes to describe his fantasy army as “running, jumping, climbing trees, putting on makeup when you get up there.”) I’ve never actually considered a military career because I’m just too puny. But I’m not entirely immune to the allure of action. I studied gymnastics as a kid and, in my early twenties, I pursued stage combat for quite some time and even purchased a couple of swords. But I’ve mostly stood by and watched while those around me scaled high peaks, scuba dived, and beat the patootie out of each other in dojos.

And, you know, there’s the war-and-peace issue. To be brief, I hate hate hate that we have to send men and women into combat against other people. And, like most people I guess, I have deeply divided feelings about our recent and present military engagements. (How’s that for euphemism, huh?) But, as you may know from this blog, I’m also committed to supporting the efforts of those who serve in the military–especially after they come home and try to reintegrate into the community, often while dealing with combat-related injuries or illness. Specifically, throughout most of 2012 I’ve been involved volunteering with the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces group. And I’m researching and developing a production of Kate Wenner’s Make Sure It’s Me, a play about traumatic brain injury (TBI) in military service members, which will roll out as an event series in 2013.

As part of my research, I was invited to join the work of NH’s Military-Civilian Traumatic Brain Injury Collaborative, which works to connect veterans living with TBI to the services they need to rebuild their health and their lives. Many organizations and individuals pitch in on this work, including Northeast Rehabilitation Hospital, NH’s DHHS, Easter Seals, Brain Injury Association of NH, etc. On September 14th and 15th, the Collaborative held an extraordinary event in cooperation with the NH National Guard: the Military Orientation Training for Brain Injury Professionals (MOTBIP). As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, MOTBIP was created by Northeast Rehab neurologist Dr. James Whitlock. This was the second iteration of the event and, in spite of the name, it was targeted not only to brain injury specialists but to doctors, nurses, social workers and administrators who might come into contact with veterans at community-based emergency rooms or clinics as well as VA hospitals.

And there was one goofy theatre artist tagging along.

Here comes the hard part: I originally figured that I’d barely survive a grueling day of running, jumping, and climbing trees and then rush home to blog about it. But the world events of last week, which included horrific violence spurred in part by inflammatory material on the internet, have tempered my desire to “bring you into the action.” I feel enormously privileged to have spent the day (eleven whole hours, as it turned out) with members of the New Hampshire National Guard and with the civilian health care providers who were there to learn how to better serve their patients. I do not want to glorify or to diminish any of the facts I learned or the physical sensations I experienced (many of them uncomfortable). So, after much mulling, rather than giving you a description of the M4 I fired on the virtual range or the Convoy Simulation, here’s what I’d like to say about my long day in the sun at MOTBIP:

1. The members of the NHNG whom I met last Friday were all highly intelligent, capable, patient, respectful, kind, and tremendous team players. Each worked to take the focus off of himself and place it on his unit or on specific colleagues he admired. I wanted to take a few of these great folks with me to join my theatre company–I think tech week would go really smoothly with them around! (I only met one woman during the training and she was in an assistant’s role rather than presenting. Although many women do serve, I guess they are not primarily working with the weapons and transport systems we learned about at MOTBIP. Remember that the NG are the folks who care for us during natural and man-made disasters as well, but that work wasn’t the focus of this training.) When I commented on how well they communicated with each other, my squad leader quietly stated, “It’s easy when you know who the boss is.” Woven in and around this idea, and clearly heard in their vocal inflections, was the enormous care they take with each other. They really care about each other. I’m not naive to the darker possibilities of unit cohesion, but what I saw on Friday exactly personified the values of “loyalty” and “teamwork.” It moved me deeply. Made me kind of jealous, too!

2. Military service members endure grueling hardship just walking around. A key component to the MOTBIP experience was to make us sweat a little through simulations of the physical challenges of even basic military tasks. So they issued us flak vests and helmets which we had to wear or carry throughout the day as we walked from one learning station to another, climbed into and out of military vehicles of various sorts, and felt the hot hours ticking by. Needless to say, there were no “petite” vests in the pile. Those of you who know me can envision me dwarfed in gear–even without the ceramic chest and back plates often worn when “in theatre,” and without the numerous added weapons, ammunition, communications equipment, tools, water, juggling balls, chainsaws, etc. that a typical service member carries, I began to ache and sweat within a minute of putting on the vest. The helmet was completely impossible for me–I’m not only puny, I get a headache at the drop of a hat. Or helmet, as I discovered. I was instantly reminded of something I learned back at the TBI conference in April–that service members often suffer long-term soft tissue and spinal issues from the weight they carry as part of their daily routine. Do we need a new campaign, I wonder? MASSAGE A VETERAN TODAY!

3. We are still sending tremendously bright, talented, hard-working people into combat situations RIGHT NOW, even though our direct involvement in Iraq has wound down and we are in the slow process of pulling out of Afghanistan. Most Guardsmen that I met on Friday had been deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan (or both), several of them had been deployed more than once, and the Blackhawk medevac team that we met deploys again in two weeks. To members of the military, this is obvious; they are warriors and they go to war. But I believe the American public needs to stand up and participate in a discussion about this: how many wars can we afford to be fighting? How many talented men and women do we want to put in harm’s way? How can we clarify and execute our policies around waging war, so that fewer of these precious people are lost?

4. War has always been dangerous and health care for warriors has always been expensive. The new war technologies, and the concurrent developments in combat medical care, have ampified this mathematics: while we may experience fewer deaths, more warriors are surviving to come home injured, often with multiple injuries (polytrauma) that involve damage to limbs and to the brain. Care for these veterans is complex, treatment of their injuries is still evolving, and our health care systems (both VA and civilian) are already overburdened. Even if we stopped combat operations this very minute, we would still find ourselves swamped by the wounded for years to come. Buckle up for a saddening, expensive ride. Again, don’t we need to discuss this?

5. I’m proud to be a citizen of the U.S. and humbled by the sacrifices of our military. But, as I said previously, I hate hate hate war and I’d love to see our military involvement reduced in coming years. What’s a person to do?

VOTE. Whatever your opinion, you have to participate in the process to be heard.

VOLUNTEER. There’s stuff to be done in our communities that transcends politics.

HAVE PATIENCE IN PUBLIC. The people around you may have any number of problems they are dealing with, including invisible brain injury. Take a breath and dial down the road rage. (The exception being for those who drive or walk while texting. They deserve your wrath. Go for it! No, just kidding. But please don’t text while driving or walking, okay?)

Enough of the soapbox. Thanks for listening! I will continue to think about how I can translate these experiences to the stage next year during MSIM.

I give thanks to the New Hampshire National Guard and to all who serve or have served in the military. Best wishes to you and your families.

Berlin Vet Center post update!

Hey, all! I had another sober but inspiring visit to Gorham, NH last week, to meet the North Country Veterans Committee at the Berlin Vet Center. Upon seeing Team Leader Jay Sprinkle again, I learned some more important details about the care veterans and their families receive through the Vet Center program. So I’ve updated my previous post about the Berlin Vet Center, and also added more pictures. I also learned that the hygiene kits donated by the Red Cross are already proving useful to homeless veterans up there, yippee! So stay tuned for updates about the work of the North Country Veterans Committee–and help spread the word about the services available at Vet Centers.

vets helping vets in Berlin, NH

Leslie unloading hygiene kits at the Berlin Vets Center.

POST UPDATED 9-12-12: As you know if you’ve followed my adventures studying traumatic brain injury in military service members, one theme that emerges again and again is the difficulty of trust between veterans and their civilian friends, family, co-workers, and even the care providers they encounter. Even at the VA., as former Sgt. Matthew Pennington has explained, civilian medical staff at VA hospitals may not seem to hear a service member properly, nor to understand the culture of self-reliance and loyalty to their unit that makes it so hard to ask for help.

So the Vet Center program is a life-saver for many veterans–if they are lucky enough to discover a Center nearby. There, combat theatre veterans and their families can receive counseling from highly educated medical health professionals, including Clinical Social Workers, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and Licensed Clinical Professional Counselors–many of whom are veterans themselves. Vet Center counselors also provide resource referrals for other issues (medical, legal, financial) that may be hampering veterans’ readjustment to civilian life after deployment. They help veterans to access such VA services as medical care, disability benefits, educational benefits, and employment resources. Vet Center counselors are trained to help with bereavement, marriage and family counseling, military sexual trauma (MST), as well as to screen for and address PTSD and TBI.

An important trust-builder at the Vet Centers: they work in collaboration with the VA Medical Centers, but they are not directly related to then. Vet Center records are separate from VA Medical records and are held in the strictest of confidentiality. Vet Center records may only be released if the veteran requests it. This is an extremely important point, as many service members may not come in for needed counseling if they think that their mental health records might be seen by their military supervisors and could adversely affect their careers (and future benefits). So active duty service members do not need to fear that seeking help from the Vet Center will compromise their job.

Unfortunately, many veterans and active duty military still don’t know that Vet Centers exist. And there are not many of them–only 300 in the nation. But the funding for Vet Centers has grown substantially in the past few years as the DOD and the military leadership grapple with the needs of veterans from the GWOT era. By the way, GWOT stands for “Global War on  Terror”; specific campaigns within GWOT include OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom, or the Afghanistan war) and OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom). So I’ll sometimes hear people reference OEF/OIF veterans as a way of referencing the most recent wave of combat veterans. Others refer to “post-9/11” veterans. In any case, this program is small but growing, and they need to help spread the word about the great resources vets can find through the Centers.

I had been hearing about this great program for awhile, but I still hadn’t visited a Vet Center myself, until an opportunity arose: as part of my Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces volunteer work, I was asked to deliver 60 hygiene kits for the homeless to the Berlin Vet Center in the North Country of NH. In spite of its name, the center is actually located in Gorham, right over the border from Berlin. ROAD TRIP!!!

My co-volunteer Karen Morse and I pulled on our red SAF polos, picked up the Red Cross van in Portsmouth and headed to 515 Main Street in Gorham. There was a brief moment of sadness because we had been promised access to the coveted NH Red Cross Hummer for the journey, but it wasn’t available. Karen was more gung ho about the Hummer idea than I–she’s an Air Force veteran herself and extremely athletic, so she was ready to conquer the big beast and tame it to our needs for the long drive. I was intrigued, too, but the drive is 2.5 hours each way, and I was bracing myself for a noisy slog. As it turned out, we got the van instead, and the only excessive noise generated was by the two of us in the kind of epic, wide-ranging, female-inflected road trip conversation that good movies are built upon. We talked a lot about issues facing veterans, but we also had a great digression around our favorite youtube clips. We both heartily recommend Christian the Lion!

Les with Jay Sprinkle and Wendy Mayerson

So, Karen and I had a gabby, uneventful journey to Gorham, where we were greeted at the Vet Center by Jay Sprinkle, Team Leader, and Wendy Mayerson, Office Manager. Both are kind, warm people who clearly create a welcoming environment for the veterans in need who visit the Berlin Vet Center. We did not meet the other staff on this visit, but we did learn that more than half of the staff are veterans. Again, this is a key aspect to the approach of the Vet Centers: vet-to-vet support.

Karen Morse and Jay Sprinkle

After saying hello, we brought in the two big boxes of hygiene kits. We discussed with Jay the difficulties of reaching out to the homeless vets in the North Country, and then we did some picture-taking for Red Cross posterity of us presenting the kits in front of the Vet Center sign.

Les with Jay Sprinkle and Karen Morse

After the picture-taking, Jay gave us a tour of the facility and some history and core characteristics of the Vet Center program: we learned that it was first started by Vietnam vets who supported each other through informal “rap sessions”. The vet-to-vet format was successful but more professional clinical help was needed, so the Centers developed a formal relationship to the VA which began in 1979. The Vet Center program is, in fact, one extremely successful unit of 5 that now comprise the VA. We also learned that it is primarily a mental health counseling facility, but that they also serve as a resource referral when vets or their families have other needs. The eligibility requirement is that the veteran must have served in a theatre of combat in some capacity (even if you never experienced direct combat–please don’t feel that you must have been shot at to be eligible for support at the Vet Center!). Spouses and children of combat theatre vets are also eligible for services and do comprise a good percentage of the clients presently served in the North Country. The Berlin Vet Center works closely with the White River Junction VA Hospital over the border in Vermont, and even has webcam video conferencing for consultations with mental health staff there in cases where driving to WRJ isn’t feasible.

The Center is petite but lovingly furnished and quite inviting. There are comfortable chairs in every space, homey touches to the decor, and rooms for both one-on-one counseling and group activities. There’s even a backyard patio with a gas grille where veterans can informally hang out or attend barbecues or other activities hosted by the Vet Center. Local veteran service organizations such as the American Legion and the VFW sometimes partner with the Vet Center in such efforts; the Center also hosts meetings of the North Country Veterans Committee, which I’ll write about in another post. Suffice it to say, this is an important community hub for veterans and those who provide care for them.

At the conclusion of our tour, we were ushered into a storage area where Jay gave us some Berlin Vet Center outreach items: t-shirts and baseball caps for us to wear during our future outings across the state to help spread the word about the Gorham location and Vet Centers in general. Many veterans, even those from WWII, Korea, or Vietnam, have gone years without knowing that the Vet Center program exists. So Karen and I will proudly wear our Vet Center togs and explain to anyone who asks about the services available in Gorham (and at the Manchester Vet Center, which is the other location in NH).

Then we had an equally trouble-free ride home. I may have worn out Karen’s ears a little during our epic conversation! But it was a lovely day, a huge learning experience, and a great way to give a little back to those who have served.

So, if you have a loved one who is a veteran in need of some support, tell them about the Vet Center program. No matter when he or she served, from the revered WWII veterans still among us to our current heroes, all veterans can find a listening ear and real help to heal at the Vet Centers.

TBI chronicles, part 3: Meeting Matthew Pennington

Well, as I’m sure you can see, I was a born theatre-maker–not so much a blogger! I’m having such an exciting time running around doing research for Make Sure It’s Me/nh, as well as stepping into my new role as Associate Director of ACT ONE, that I keep forgetting to keep y’all posted. (I am allowed to say “y’all,” since I did my graduate work at UT Austin. Hook ’em, horns!)

So, I’ve decided to wrap up my discussion of the spring’s crash course in Traumatic Brain Injury in military service members by telling you about Sgt. Matthew Pennington, one of the many presenters at the Fourth Annual New England Civilian-Military Cooperation Conference on Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury in Chelmsford, MA in April. This conference brought together care providers from VA hospitals and numerous community-based organizations in several New England States. (And was co-chaired by two brilliant women: Tammy Masse of Naval Health Clinic New England and Donna Beaudin of Northeast Rehabilitation.) I had read about Matt in the New York Times in January, in an article called “Acting Out War’s Inner Wounds.” I knew he was from Maine and hoped I’d be able to connect with him to participate in MSIM/nh. When I realized that he’d be speaking at this conference I was attending, I emailed him to introduce myself. He was extremely gracious and said he looked forward to meeting me in Chelmsford. Woo hoo!

Although every presenter was marvelous (including Major General William Reddel, the Adjutant General of the New Hampshire National Guard, who had us all misty-eyed as he painted a portrait of the NG’s citizen warrior population), Matthew Pennington was an instantly beloved hit with the crowd. He put a personal face on the cost of war–and not just a face. He appeared before us that day in shorts and a t-shirt, an outfit that displayed his proudly-tattooed arms and also his lower legs. Matt had lost his left leg, severely injured his right leg, and sustained a traumatic brain injury serving in the Army in Iraq in 2006. And so he stood there on one prosthetic leg and with clear, extensive scarring on the other. I found this to be a courageous gesture of trust, as well as an immediate visual aid in understanding his story.

Matt’s experiences coming home from Iraq with multiple wounds is sadly familiar: while his early treatment at Walter Reed was reasonably successful, when he was sent home with his new prosthesis and moderate anxiety symptoms, he wasn’t prepared for the downward emotional and physical spiral he suffered as he tried to build a new life in the civilian world. Living in central Maine, he found limited services to address his deepening problems: mood swings, cognitive difficulties, and a parade of VA health providers who prescribed him antidepressants during short appointments during which Matt didn’t feel he could make himself heard or understood. Through his own research, and with the help of a doctor and counselors at a Houston veterans health center, Matt began to understand how his traumatic experiences in Iraq had created a combined syndrome of PTSD and TBI. And that certain medications would only make his symptoms worse.

But this new insight wasn’t enough to pull him out of his depression when he again returned home and tried to rebuild. What made the difference for Matt was a 2009 casting call by NYU student filmmaker Nicholas Brennan, who was looking for a wounded veteran from Maine to star in his short film, “A Marine’s Guide to Fishing.” (Although Matt was in the Army, he plays a Marine in the film–so he’s been known to Tweet both “hooah” and “hoo rah” on Twitter to cover both branches.)

As he explained to us in Chelmsford, Matt found the idea of plunking himself down in the middle of the New York student film scene pretty crazy. But he decided to “soldier up”–he had certainly faced worse in his life than a bunch of bleeding-heart liberal artists! And that experience has been transformational for him–not only has Matthew Pennington performed a star turn in a solid piece of filmic storytelling, he has also found a mission. He now travels the country with a program called “Operation: Marine’s Guide,” in which he tells his story, screens the film, and shares some important points about our wounded warriors. Sometimes his director, Nicholas Brennan, or his producer, John Logan Pierson, go with him. All three were on hand in Chelmsford, all lovely people. But they let Matt take center stage. Here are the concepts that have stayed with me from hearing Matt speak:

  • Service members exposed to the compression-blast wave from an IED have probably sustained a traumatic brain injury. The injured brain needs time to heal–and antidepressants and other medications often prescribed for PTSD may be dangerous for those living with a TBI.
  • Wounded veterans don’t easily trust civilian caregivers, who often have little understanding of military culture. It goes against a service member’s training and instincts to self-identify as wounded and ask for help. So veterans may find the support they need at Vet Centers, where the majority of counselors are themselves veterans, and where the consultations are confidential and not part of the military record. 
  • A major problem for veterans (or those who still serve) with a TBI is the constant surges of adrenaline they experience in response to everyday occurrences. This dysfunction in the adrenaline response could last for months or even years, so veterans who experience it need to find coping skills to help them “stand down” in these panicky moments.

Matt shared with us an awesomely effective, easy-to-remember coping strategy for panic attacks:

The adrenaline surge you feel comes from the “animal” part of your brain. So, first engage the animal brain by pointing in the direction of your home. Matt oriented himself towards one corner of the room as he pointed north and said, “That’s home.” Next, you have to engage the rational brain in order to quiet the animal brain. So, look at your watch and make note of the time and the date. By the time you have focused clearly on the date and the time, your rational brain may have the upper hand and the adrenaline response may start to abate. (Try it! It works!)

The marvelous thing about this bit of strategy Matt shared with us is that I had noticed him taking tiny “coping” breaks during his presentation. He remained calm, but allowed himself occasionally to break eye contact with the audience, fall silent, and take his time organizing his thoughts. When he told us about the Home/Watch exercise, he confessed that he has these adrenaline surges quite often, even when he’s giving talks like this. So these coping strategies are not just something he used for a short time to “cure himself”. They are part of the ongoing process of healing that he performs every day.

I was fortunate to spend some time after lunch that day chatting with Matt. He is extremely personable and passionate about helping other wounded veterans, as well as the care providers and family members who work and live with veterans and want to better understand their experiences. But he’s also a guy’s guy who makes time in his schedule for fishing and would like to learn more about film-making and acting. My biggest difficulty interacting with Matt is resisting the urge to hug him! From the interactions I saw taking place around him at the conference, I am not alone in that reaction. If anyone out there is looking for a speaker for your veterans’ group, health care conference, community organization, or church meeting, please visit the site for “A Marine’s Guide to Fishing” to contact Matthew Pennington.

So, I lay the Springtime’s adventures to rest–more unfolds even as I scramble to finish this and race to the next meeting. I’m happy to say I’m gearing up to direct Tragedy: a tragedy and performa run of Clean Room, so the satisfaction I feel in helping New Hampshire’s military is complemented by the pure joy of making more theatre. Thanks for reading and best wishes to all!