Theater of War provides insight to effects of combat stress

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Story and photo by David Altom, Deputy Director, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs

"Battle Buddies" -- Ajax and his brother in arms, Achilles, in happier times.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The stage is simple and barren.  The actors are seated, reading from binders.  There are no costumes, no props, no orchestra or special effects.

Still, the audience is silent and transfixed as a woeful howl fills the auditorium.  The story of a warrior’s grief turns to despair, disgrace and finally … suicide.

This is the classic tragedy Ajax, a collaborative production by the Theater of War and the Actors Theatre of Louisville.  Written 2,500 years ago by the Greek general Sophocles, the play is as relevant today as when it was first performed for the author’s own army.

The story is the definitive example of post-traumatic stress … Rambo without Stallone; The Deer Hunter without DeNiro:  During the Trojan War the legendary warrior Ajax — a general officer worshiped by his men — grieves for the loss of his cousin, the heroic Achilles.  Adding to his woes, Ajax is cheated out of a great honor by his higher command, prompting him to take out his frustration and rage on his offenders.  Fate intervenes and instead of getting revenge he is tricked into slaughtering the army’s livestock.

Feeling foolish, the disgraced warrior contemplates the shame he has brought to his military career, his family and himself.  In the end, Ajax takes his own life, literally throwing himself on his sword, leaving behind a grieving widow, a fatherless child and controversy among his fellow warriors.

Translated by Byan Doerries and directed by KJ Sanchez, the hour-long production hits all the key elements that lead to Ajax’s fall from honor to his ultimate self-destruction.  The reading is noble, woeful and even humorous at times, thanks to a heartfelt performance by the actors.

Yes, it’s a Greek play and there is no mention of Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.  And yet the theme is as important today as it was 2,500 years ago.  The value of Ajax is in showing quite literally how the more things change, the more they stay the same.  Whether the weapons are swords or IEDs, the effects are the same; Soldiers today face with the same problems as their ancestors … combat stress, loss of fellow troops, frustration with “the system” and reintegration into the community and family.

“It’s kind of a window into our world." Maj. Franklin Jones, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was part of the panel discussion focusing on issues raised by the Theater of War presentation.

Maj. Franklin Jones, a Kentucky Army National Guard officer and veteran of combat in Afghanistan, was part of an insightful discussion panel that followed the reading of the play.

“The play was pretty profound,” he said.  “It’s kind of a window into our world.  I can imagine how much good it does for other combat veterans to hear this.”

Among the issues Jones found in the play was the role of leadership in dealing with combat stress.  “We have a tendency to iconify our leaders, to put them on a pedestal and make them perfect.  And as leaders we have tendency to want to stay that way because that’s what enables us to lead.  If my Soldiers see imperfections in me, I may think it makes us less effective.  That’s not necessarily true.”

According to Jones the play highlights a key training deficiency — what to do when a combat veteran gets home.

“We just kind of have to figure it out,” he said. “The kind of training that we do, we do so much that it becomes second nature to us so that when we face a stressful situation we just react and don’t have to think about it.  We go right back to our training.  But when we get into a stressful situation at home we don’t have the training to deal with that.”

The panel proved integral to the presentation, bringing light to issues regarding the role of  modern psychiatry, family and the Citizen-Soldier.  Audience participation was encouraged and active.

Another member of the panel was Dr. Laura Johnson, Chief of the Behavioral Health Clinic at Fort Knox’s Ireland Army Community Hospital.  When asked what can be done for those affected by the stresses of wartime deployment, Johnson — an Army veteran herself and wife of a deployed officer — summed it up with a simple sentence:

“We probably just need to cut each other some slack.”

Theater of War has delivered more than 150 productions  in the United States and Europe reaching 30,000 service members and veterans of every rank, their families and caregivers.

Sanchez, the director of Theater of War, is also working on another play — ReEntry — based on interviews with veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The next performance of Theater of War is scheduled for October 10.  Admission is free.  Call 502-584-1205 for ticket reservation.

Click here for more information on the Theater of War. 

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