A combat veteran loses his best friend. He feels betrayed and deserted by family and friends.
He then takes his own life.
A tragic story ripped from today’s headlines? No. It’s the story of the Greek hero Ajax written by Sophocles more than 2,500 years ago.
‘The Play Deals With Timeless Themes’
“The play deals with timeless themes,” said Bryan Doerries, the artistic director of the Theater of War.
Three actors -- Glenn Davis, Marjolaine Goldsmith and Zach Grenier -- gave a dramatic reading of the play before senior military leaders at Fort Lesley J. McNair's National War College here last night. It was the first event of the Senior Leadership Conference and included the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the combatant commanders and the senior enlisted leaders.
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, invited Theater of War to give the performance.
“[My wife] Ellyn, saw the play and recommended it to me,” Dunford said. When the chairman saw it last year, he said was struck by the power of the play and the relevance to service members today.
In the play, Ajax is in his ninth year of war. He is a hero who just lost his best friend -- Achilles. He believes he should be given the honor of carrying his friend’s armor, but the generals give it to a lesser man. Ajax feels betrayed. In a fury, he vows to kill the generals and when he acts on this he is whisked away by Athena, the goddess of war, and he blindly slays livestock.
When he comes out of his rage, he is ashamed of his actions and the entreaties of family and friends are for naught.
When Dunford saw the play last year, the United States was entering its 15th year of combat. The Department of Veterans Affairs says more than 20 U.S. military veterans die by suicide each day.
Catalyst to Talk About War Experiences
The Theater of War began in 2008 as a catalyst to get service members and veterans to talk about their experiences in war and the demons that came home with them. The first performance was in San Diego before Marines newly returned from the combat zone.
It is an effort to open lines of communications among service members, between service members and family members and between those who serve -- or have served -- in the military with the greater U.S. population, officials said.
Theater of War is Doerries’ way of looking for a better way to deal with the invisible and visible wounds. He also looks for ways to get people to deal with the stigma around service members seeking mental health help and around suicide.
This was the 408th performance of the play, Doerries said. The group has put it on for infantry battalions just back from war, for family members, for first responders, for wounded warriors, for homeless veterans and for general audiences. “It is one of the few ways that we in the arts can help,” he said.
The format of a presentation is an introduction of the play, the dramatic reading, a panel discussion which then opens up to a discussion among the audience. “The first time we put it on, the discussion lasted three hours,” Doerries said.
The discussion didn’t last three hours last night, but it was spirited. The defense leaders talked about post-traumatic stress and the transition from the battlefield to the home. They discussed the role of spouses and the unique position and pressures repeated deployments place on them.
They discussed survivor’s guilt and the stigma of suicide and the role of friends. They discussed betrayal and they discussed why Sophocles wrote the play in the first place.
“What we hear time after time from veterans is that no one understands what we’ve been through. They weren’t there,” Doerries said.
But the play proves that people have been there before, he said. It is ancient, yet modern. The emotions run true from warfare in the Trojan War to combat in Helmand province in Afghanistan.
The pain of loss, betrayal and alienation are the same no matter the war and no matter the rank.
“When I saw this play last year, I went home wondering if I was doing all I could,” Dunford said wrapping the evening up. “I want us all to be thinking that.”
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)
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