Theater of War

Robert Swett in uniform My family has always been immensely proud of my father’s achievements in the military. In addition to rising up in the ranks of the Army, retiring as a Lt. Colonel, he fought in the Korean War and did two tours of duty in Viet Nam. It was only in the last decade of his life that I understood the tremendous toll those wars had taken on him, physically and psychologically. In the Korean War, he lost some of his hearing and developed blood clots in his legs, both of which plagued him for the rest of his life. In Viet Nam, he was exposed to Agent Orange. At the time of his death, he was considered 100 percent disabled because of the effects of Agent Orange. He had type 2 diabetes and was in constant pain because of neuropathy. He also got lung cancer, which ultimately led to his death. Psychologically, I’m sure he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) until the day he died. Sudden noises always startled him — made him nearly jump out of his skin. He told me they often sounded like gunfire. He was barely 20 during the Korean War. More than 60 years later, just the sound of a spoon dropping on a tile floor could transport him back in an instant.

The impact of war from ancient times to today

Next Monday, May 13 Outside the Wire — a Brooklyn-based social impact company that uses theater and a variety of other media to address pressing public health and social issues — will present Theater of War at the University of Maine at Orono. Actors, including David Strathairn (LincolnThe Bourne UltimatumGood Night, Good Luck) will read selections from Sophocles’ Ajax, followed by a community panel and discussion with the audience.

Ajax suicide Theater of War

Ajax preparing for suicide
From Sophocles’ Ajax

As it says on Outside the Wire’s web site, “These ancient plays timelessly and universally depict the psychological and physical wounds inflicted upon warriors by war. By presenting these plays to military and civilian audiences, our hope is to de-stigmatize psychological injury, increase awareness of post-deployment psychological health issues, disseminate information regarding available resources, and foster greater family, community, and troop resilience.”

The Orono performance is sponsored by Lunder-Dineen Health Education Alliance of Maine. I had not heard of the alliance until recently. It’s a non-profit organization that collaborates with Mass General Hospital in Boston to provide free, evidence-based health education in Maine.

I spoke with Denise O’Connell, the senior program manager, to find out why Lunder- Dineen decided to bring Theater of War to Maine. She said she went to a performance and learned something about her own father, who had fought in World War II.  ”Seeing the performance gave me a broader understanding of what it was like for him when he came home. The reaction from the community and friends was more powerful than I realized.”

Lunder-Dineen decided  it would be a valuable experience for people — health care providers and the general public — to learn more about the silent wounds of war. “The health of older adults, veterans and mental health are an educational priority for Lunder-Dineen,” she says. “This performance addresses all three of those issues and involves providers and the community in dialogue about solutions.”

Theater of War in Orono

The Theater of War performance is Monday, May 13 from 7:00 to 9:00 pm in the D.P Corbett Auditorium at the University of Maine at Orono.

The actors will do the dramatic readings and immediately after there will be a community panel and town hall discussion. The panel will include an active duty service member who has seen combat, a family member of a veteran, a Viet Nam veteran, and a health care provider. The town hall discussion, which is where the audience comes in, will be facilitated by retired Brigadier General Loree Sutton.

From Outside the Wire director Brian Doerries’ perspective: “Our hope is that by presenting a nearly 2,500-year-old play about the invisible wounds of war, it will help give a voice to the untold stories of older veterans, and break down the stigma long associated with psychological injury. This is a safe space for open dialogue about a timeless issue.”

The event is free and open to the public, but space is limited. Please RSVP by emailing Prudence Searl or calling 207-262-7925.

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane was the health reporter on WCSH 6. Before that, a radiation therapist at Maine Medical Center and after, Manager of Marketing/PR at Mercy Hospital. Now she writes the award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.