Along with the roughly 2,800 American men and women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, 26,000 have been injured, some of them permanently disabled. The news media tend to focus on those who have died, but what about the stories of soldiers who have been disabled? The scope of the question was brought home to me during a reception held in New York City in October 2005. The Achilles Club, an organization for disabled runners, was welcoming veterans recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan who had lost a leg in battle and had begun to use prosthetics. The club was sponsoring a 5-kilometer race for them the next day in Central Park.
The reception took place in a long, narrow space crowded with veterans, their families and other club members with disabilities. It was bedlam. The veterans were valiantly trying to serve their families from the buffet, shuttling back and forth with great difficulty on their new legs. Guests in wheelchairs were caught cramped between tables; blind members of the club were gracious but somewhat confused. And I, though born without a right forearm, was asked to pour coffee. Some guests seemed surprised at being served by a one-armed man in a Roman collar.
In the midst of the event, a robust Hispanic soldier asked if I would join him at a small table, where we could be alone. For him, just crossing the room required great effort. He maneuvered his large frame into a chair against the wall, and I found a spot across the table from him. Once we were seated, he asked if he could hold my hand, and though his firm grip pulled my ribs against the table’s edge, I offered it willingly. Then, in a rush of words, he told me that he was a practicing Catholic, he had lost one leg above the knee, and that he did not know where he was on this earth. He had lost his girlfriend, his sex drive and his faith in God. “Brother,” he said looking into my eyes, “I am so scared at home in Texas. I wasn’t this scared in Iraq.”
The conversation troubled me deeply. During the subway ride home I wondered how the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped, which had been such a leaven for so many disabled civilians, could help this wonderful, valiant soldier.
An Experiment in Writing
The N.T.W.H., as we call it, is an enterprise I founded in 1977. With headquarters on Greenwich Street in lower Manhattan and a fully renovated public school building in Belfast, Me., N.T.W.H. aims to strengthen the morale and self-confidence of disabled men and women by training them in the theater arts. Some of our students become skillful actors and work in film, television and theater.
It struck me that these veterans had a great need and desire to tell their stories. A course in the dramatic monologue might enable them to employ the craft of writing to express themselves. With that thought, the N.T.W.H. Writers’ Program for Wounded Warriors began.
As a first step toward recruiting students, I visited the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. In the amputee rehabilitation unit I met many young people who have lost arms or legs or both and who are now in various stages of recovery. “Hi, I’m from Ohio,” declared a red-haired boy who had lost an arm and a leg. “This whole thing is a real trip. I signed up for the Reserves so I’d have enough money to buy a car, and now I can’t drive. Sure, I’d love to tell my story!” Another boy had had his arm amputated close to the shoulder, his tattoo there cut in half. Since I myself have often had to put up with being stared at, I am careful not to stare at others. Yet my eyes were continually drawn back to that broken tattoo. Nowadays, tattoos are a symbol of youth; it broke my heart to see his ripped in half.
The staff of the rehabilitation unit was exemplary, their care and concern for these broken men and women evident. They had, however, a distinctly military point of view that could be disconcerting at times. One captain asked me if I used a prosthetic arm. When I told him that my forearm had been missing from birth and I had never felt the need for an artificial one, he replied, “Too bad. After I fit these guys with a prosthetic arm, I put a rifle in it and take them down to the firing range. They love to shoot. I could do the same for you.” These men needed help to re-enter civilian life, and this officer was trying to teach them how to fire a gun. I swallowed hard, choking back my response.
We recruited 20 students to inaugurate the writing program, which took place last summer at our center in Maine. Although the veterans followed a different academic track from that of our other students, we aimed to integrate them with our acting program for civilians with disabilities. The veterans lived in the same facilities as the others, designed to be accessible to persons with disabilities.
Initially, it was a bit awkward as the wounded soldiers began to realize that they, too, were permanently disabled and had joined the ranks of this subculture. They seemed more nervous, however, about their “macho” group integrating with an “artsy” crowd. Yet as the hours grew into days, the veterans began to take enthusiastically to the total experience. They nicknamed the patio smoking area “the campfire” and took very seriously the daily ceremonies of raising and lowering the American flag. The discipline they brought from their military experience helped them to progress quickly in their writing. I had counseled their teachers to start small, to see initially whether they could get the students to write about childhood memories of their first red wagon. But the veterans would have none of that. From the start, they wanted to talk about their most horrendous wartime experiences.
The staff noted that the veterans also acknowledged and admired the dedication of the civilian students who worked hard in their acting classes. When it was announced that all the students—military and civilian—would be choreographed in the opening number of the public program at the session’s end, few complained and some showed good-natured humor. The routine became: write all day and rehearse that introductory number, Cole Porter’s “Another Opening, Another Show,” at night.
Ever since the writing program for veterans was first announced toward the end of 2005, the media had shown much interest in it. The New York Times, Time, People, the magazine of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, CNN and HBO asked to come and write stories. I found myself torn. On the one hand, we needed the press to alert the public to our work, to gather financial support and to recruit more disabled veterans. On the other hand, I felt a need to protect our students. Our school needed to be a safe environment, where the students could plumb the depths of their personal experience. Many media outlets seemed interested primarily in graphic photos or videotape of soldiers with severe disabilities and graphic, gory excerpts from the dramatic monologues these men and women were writing.
In the end we welcomed, within controlled parameters, Donna and David Kornhaber from The New York Times, for a story that was published on July 30, 2006, as well as the Maryland Jesuit publication and HBO. While the reporters from The New York Times and the Maryland province magazine behaved admirably, we had some problems with HBO. A cameraman overstepped professional boundaries, offering some of the veterans drinks and tickets to a Willy Nelson concert. I had warned all the students to be wary of the press, but the veterans were way ahead of me. When the cameraman made his offer, one student remarked: “We know all about these guys. They were on the battlefield with us, and they only wanted us to bitch and moan. We don’t trust them. When this guy offered me drinks, I told him to take a hike and that I was going to tell Brother Curry.”
To HBO’s credit, it removed that cameraman from the project. But eventually HBO pulled out. Perhaps they thought N.T.W.H. was cultivating too much of a positive attitude in these disabled warriors. HBO seemed interested in making a documentary that showed the pain and loss of war, while our aim was to equip the veterans with the tools they need to develop their imaginations and make an easier transition to a productive life. We believe one can experience joy even after becoming disabled.
A Voice in the Darkness
One of last summer’s students was Michael Jernigan, a marine who lost both his eyes in Iraq. He would sit on a couch in the dark, not knowing whether it was day or night, with a hundred stories going through his head. When he was about to leave N.T.W.H. to go home, he thanked me for the ways the writers’ program had brought light into his life. Here is an excerpt from “Full Circle,” a dramatic monologue he wrote:
I hadn’t been scared when I left for Iraq, but I was scared now, because my father was being deployed to Afghanistan. We finished dinner and dad paid. I always stuck him with the bill when we went out. He drove me home. My wife had left me by then. I sat alone in my living room, not even knowing if the lights were on or off. I was in the privacy of my own mind. I could taste the breakfast I had the Sunday morning before I left. I could see my father’s face. I cried. It’s kind of funny, I thought to myself, how things have come full circle.