NYT: Storytellers’ Muse: The Wounds of War

Storytellers’ Muse: The Wounds of War


ONE of the last places that Michael Jernigan, a former Marine corporal, might have expected to find himself last week was a theater program in this small wooded town. But then a lot of unexpected things have happened since his Humvee was bombed outside Mahmudiya, Iraq, in August 2004, and shrapnel shot through his eyes and into his brain.

Yet on this morning Mr. Jernigan, 26 and blind, is walking down the spacious hallway of a former public high school, a sensing stick to guide him in one hand and a tape recorder in the other. He has used the recorder to dictate a 15-minute story about his life in St. Petersburg, Fla., as a struggling college student turned recruit, and about what has happened since the explosion. Out of that material, he plans to create a two-and-a-half-minute monologue.

“The monologue is going to have more detail and be more to the point,” said Mr. Jernigan, who has a Marine insignia emblazoned on the pupil of his prosthetic eye. “We’re cutting the fat, so to speak.”

He and 11 other veterans are attending the inaugural session of the Wounded Warriors Writers’ Program, which is run by the National Theater Workshop of the Handicapped in New York. The dozen men and women, age 20 to 48, served in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. From around the country they have gathered for 10 days in this coastal town to translate their life experiences into scenes and monologues for the stage.

The idea for the program came from Brother Rick Curry, a Jesuit who founded the workshop 19 years ago to provide what he simply calls “options” for disabled theater artists. About 3,000 disabled students have participated in acting, music, dance and writing classes since 1977, said Brother Curry, 63, but the program had never before specifically sought out veterans. Last July, however, he met an Iraq war veteran whose leg had been amputated above the knee. Brother Curry, who often wears a clerical collar, recalled that the veteran “pulled me aside and said: ‘Brother, I don’t know where I am. I’m more scared than I was in Iraq.’ ’’

Brother Curry wondered if theater might help the soldier find his way. “I thought that a writing program would work,” he explained. “They all have a story to tell, and telling a story theatrically gives you a voice that you can share. It emboldens you.”

He speaks from experience. He was born without a right hand and forearm. When he was 6, his father enrolled him in an acting class near their home in Philadelphia to help him eliminate a stutter. Brother Curry said he experienced “the transformative power of the arts.” He recalls the class as “a watershed in his life,” saying acting inspired him with confidence.

He raised money to pay for the program (about $5,000 per student), but persuading veterans to attend was a bit more difficult. First he tried contacting Veterans Affairs Department hospitals and V.A. officials, but that was a “Quijotian quest,” he said. Then he sent Jason Matthews, his recruitment director, to athletic events for disabled veterans to “woo them on the mount.” Some veterans were wary of working with regular civilians. The workshop would be running its usual roster of acting and movement classes, and the veterans would be expected to participate. “One of the gentlemen who wanted to come was a little off-put that there were going to be other disabled people,” Brother Curry recounted. “He thought it was going to be a vet thing.”

That was one reason 7 of the 19 veterans who signed up dropped out three days before the program’s start. The veterans “don’t think of themselves as disabled,” he explained. “They think of themselves as vets who are injured.”

Mr. Jernigan, a third-generation marine, was also hesitant at first. “The Marines is a very alpha-male environment,’’ he said. “I never thought of myself as an artistic person. I never liked acting.” Still, he was intrigued by the opportunity. “The V.A. has sports clinics for the disabled and support groups you can go to,” he said. “But this was completely different.’’ Now he wants to write a book.

Todd Fringer, 38, a former Army sergeant and quadriplegic who came to the program from Gordon, Wis., with his wife, Sarah, said, “It’s like a form of personal therapy, to learn how to tell your story on paper.”

The staff members had their reservations as well. “I was concerned at first,” said Jerome McGill, an alumnus of the acting program who now serves as a resident playwright and mentor. “I thought these guys have kind of a macho sensibility.” But the program’s communal lifestyle and rigorous morning-to-evening schedule helped the two groups quickly integrate. “I realized after the first day that they really did fit in,” Mr. McGill said.

Deborah Williams, another resident playwright, said putting the veterans and other disabled artists together “forces a whole new creative dynamic.’’

“I was born disabled,’’ she continued. “Seeing how people have adjusted to their disability in 2 years, 4 years, 14 months — it’s changed my whole understanding of disability.”

Perhaps surprisingly, discussions of either politics or the trauma of war have not surfaced. For Brother Curry, the intensity of the program doesn’t leave time for politics. “The rightness or the wrongness of the war, believe it or not, has not come up,’’ he said. “We keep them so busy, they don’t have time. I make it about the work. And the work is about writing.”

Writing workshops are held twice each day, interspersed with master classes and rehearsals. Most of the veterans have chosen to write about their military service or their new lives as disabled adults. The hectic schedule and bucolic setting resemble a traditional liberal arts college, or, perhaps more accurately, the kind of precollege summer writing programs favored by many middle-class high school students. It’s a new experience for many of the veterans.

“I spent 21 years in the military before I got injured,” said Mr. Fringer, who joined the Army the week he turned 17, straight out of high school. “When did I have time for college?”

In many ways the program is designed with that background in mind. Michael Conforti, a workshop leader, is well aware that this is the first creative writing class — and in some cases the first formal writing class — that many of his students are taking, and so there is work on the fundamentals. But Mr. Conforti added that no matter what the background, “everybody knows how to tell a story.”

As Mr. Fringer said: “I know the story because I lived it. But I want to be able to show people and have them taste my words. I want them to be able to feel what I feel.”

Linda Ysewyn, 43, who was an Army captain, served at the Pentagon and in Iraq, where she suffered a head injury. “Combat alters the importance and value of everything,” said Ms. Ysewyn, who now teaches middle school in Virginia. “Telling the story helps with the journey back.”

Alexis McGuinness, an acting instructor, said: “This is not therapy. It’s about building and rejuvenating a person’s artistic life. And sometimes that has therapeutic consequences.”

Mr. Conforti’s work is supported by that staple of creative writing workshops everywhere: peer criticism. Faculty and students take meals together. Trading ideas and stories throughout the day, the veterans describe the program as a “full-immersion” experience.

“I’m still not quite sure what a monologue is,” confessed 25-year-old Justin Bajema, a former Marine corporal from Grand Rapids, Mich., who was seriously injured twice in Iraq. “But writing definitely helps the recovery process. Being wounded is both physical and emotional. The World War II generation never talked about these things with each other, and they suffered for it. Those of us here, at least we have the chance.”

Mr. McGill said the work’s impact would go beyond the individuals who create it. “We’re going to have a whole new population of people with disabilities helping to create a body of dramatic literature about disability,’’ he said. “It’s going to enrich the literature we create.”

Belfast, with its marina and collection of Victorian homes, acts as an extension of the campus, and the free performances that mark the end of each 10-day session are usually well attended by local residents. Brother Curry acquired and refurbished the Belfast site in 1996, renovating the former public high school into a handicapped accessible campus.

The veterans’ work will also be featured in the workshop’s annual gala performance in Westhampton Beach, N.Y., in late August, and Brother Curry said he would also like to have a celebrity reading of the veterans’ work on a Broadway stage one night. (A second 10-day program began Friday.) But the real objective, he confided, isn’t theatrical.

“Quite frankly, they’re not wounded warriors,” he explained. “Wounds heal. These are permanently disabled adults. When the flags stop being waved, there’s the reality of living, 40, 50, 60 years with your disability. That’s what I want the program to deal with. Finding joy after disability.”



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