On Memorial Day weekend, seven actors gathered in a lower-level theatre on DePaul’s Loop Campus to share with a rapt audience the lives of six military veterans and one family member living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One by one, each actor stepped forward to share the traumas of their character—a close friend shot through the head in Vietnam as he turned to look behind him, repeated sexual harassment by a superior, the loss of 26 members of a unit in Iraq. One actor portrayed the sister of a veteran who stood by helplessly as her brother’s PTSD worsened due to lack of adequate care. All the stories, from Vietnam to Iraq to Afghanistan, represent countless soldiers from every era who experience horrors no human being should ever have to witness and the anguish of the loved ones who watch them descend into anger, despair and violence.
“Veterans’ Voices,” the result of many hours of interviews, transcription, script workshops and rehearsals, is a production of Erasing the Distance. The Chicago-based nonprofit organization states on their website that they “use the power of performance to disarm stigma, spark dialogue, educate and promote healing surrounding issues of mental health.” Erasing the Distance has reached more than 40,000 people so far with performances of “Veterans’ Voices” and other plays that tell the stories of the mentally ill in their own words. Brighid O’Shaughnessy (SNL MA ’07), founder and executive artistic director of Erasing the Distance, brought this moving play to DePaul as part of the President’s Signature Series with support from the School for New Learning’s Adult Men of Color Initiative, the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, the Office of Veterans Affairs and the Office of Adult Student Affairs. The Chicago School of Professional Psychology was also a partner.
All of us know how disruptive stress can be—we’ve experienced sleepless nights, repetitive thoughts, short tempers, memory lapses and assorted other problems when under stress. For a victim of PTSD, these symptoms are magnified many times and may include flashbacks to the trauma, illness, aggressiveness and hypervigilance. PTSD sufferers may self-medicate with alcohol, drugs and risky behavior. The power of “Veterans’ Voices” is that it vividly illustrates what for many of us is only a clinical description.
The character “Ashley,” who swept the Iraqi landscape for improvised explosive devices with her unit, witnessed the violent deaths of 26 soldiers during her service. She says she’s put her fist through the wall repeatedly and cut herself numerous times, and she sees every bit of trash on the street as a potential bomb. “Paul” suppressed his Vietnam experiences by becoming a workaholic—eventually, he was named president of a Fortune 500 company. Upon retirement, freed from the pressures of work, memories of Paul’s war years flooded back, resulting in his diagnosis of PTSD.
The veterans who shared their stories for this project have felt the power of the “talking cure” by volunteering to tell their stories. They have made healing a real possibility for PTSD victims by helping others to understand the particular pain of combat veterans and their families. With “Veterans’ Voices,” DePaul helped to commemorate the sacrifice of so many veterans and raise awareness of the services they need to transition successfully to civilian life.
Let There Be Light
PTSD and attempts to treat it are nothing new. In 1946, famed director John Huston made a documentary about the medical treatment of World War II veterans suffering from neuropsychiatric disorders, which, the film states, comprised about 20 percent of battle casualties from the war. The film, made at Mason General Hospital on Long Island, N.Y., shows a group of veterans from their admission to their discharge eight weeks later. The film was suppressed for 35 years by the War Department, which did not want to acknowledge that war was the primary cause of the veterans’ psychic wounds.
In 2010, the 58-minute film was placed on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, which, as Michael O’Sullivan of the Washington Post described it, is “… a growing archive of American motion pictures earmarked for preservation because of their cultural, historic or aesthetic significance.” View the film in its entirety below.