Invisible wounds plaguing men and women in the military -- post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, suicidality -- can be difficult for civilians, and even military professionals, to understand.
One play, "Re-Entry," hopes to change that. Written by K.J. Sanchez and Emily Ackerman, the documentary theater piece is based on real people: active duty and retired Marines, and their families. Each struggle with the aftermaths of war. The names have been changed, but the dialogue comes directly from the 100-plus interviews conducted by the playwrights, both of whom have brothers who've served in the armed forces.
Originally intended not for military audiences, "Re-Entry" is now touring military bases and hospitals, educating civilians and service members on what to expect from family members and friends just returning from war. On Thursday, the Department of Veterans Affairs hosted a special performance for caregivers of wounded veterans in Washington, D.C.
"If you're going to do something, it's gotta come from [the heart], and it shouldn't be clinical all the time," said Michelle Stefanelli, VA's program manager of caregiver peer support mentoring, who saw "Re-Entry" when it played in the N.Y. area.
When it opened in 2009, The New York Times called the play "provocative and powerfully resonant."
"Re-Entry" reveals what it's like to be severely wounded in war and how it feels to be determined unfit for duty. Or what it's like to be sitting on a balcony back home in San Diego and subconsciously scanning for snipers. Eating in restaurants facing doorways to check if the enemy's entering. Burying the emotions of seeing an Iraqi mother holding her injured four-year-old son along the side of the road, begging for help that isn't going to come. Or being responsible for the lives of 40 men and women in Afghanistan and return home only to overhear people griping about their Starbucks orders or the latest reality show, unaware of your sacrifice.
Military wives who attended the conference said the play hit close to home.
Caregiver and founder of Familyofavet.com Brannan Vines recalled a scene in which an officer discusses rituals upon returning from a battle; his would be to wash his hands clean. Vines said she remembers having a similar discussion with her husband, an Operation Iraqi Freedom vet.
"Sometimes [the veterans] don't reach out because they don't feel like they deserve the help," Vines said. Or sometimes they feel guilty about asking for help, feeling as if they didn't see the worst of it, or weren't as badly injured as another, she added.
The military is racing to figure out how to tackle these invisible wounds, with an estimated average of 18 veteran suicides per day, according to the Center for Disease Control. In 2009, the services reported 381 suicides by active-duty personnel, and in 2010, the number jumped to 434, just 28 fewer deaths than those that occurred in hostile combat that year. Last year marked the sixth consecutive year the Army's suicide rate has increased.
Still, combat doesn't provide the full picture. A rising number of suicides are among reservists and National Guardsmen who have not deployed.
Last Saturday in Afghanistan, outgoing Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen told troops, "We have an extraordinarily high suicide rate right now.... There's an awful lot of work going on to try to get our arms around that. But we by no means have our arms around that."
"Can you get ahead of your buddy who's thinking about suicide?" he asked.