"ReEntry" Gives Voice To Soldiers Returning From War

04/04/12 7:50AM By Charlotte Albright
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Courtesy of Hopkins Center for the Arts
A scene from "ReEntry," a performance which opens Wednesday at Dartmouth College.

(Host) The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been talking points for over a decade now. But it's not all that often that you hear combat soldiers doing the talking.

That's why playwrights Emily Ackerman and KJ Sanchez interviewed hundreds of military personnel and relatives for the monologues and conversations that make up a performance piece called ReEntry, opening Wednesday at the Hopkins Center at Dartmouth College.

As part of our occasional Backstage series, VPR's Charlotte Albright has this preview.

(Albright) KJ Sanchez says ReEntry takes its title from the way a spacecraft hurtles toward earth after being in dangerous orbit.

(Sanchez) "And whether or not you burn up in that re-entry depends on the angle you come in on. If it's too steep you accelerate too fast and you burn up. If you're not steep enough you hit the atmosphere and bounce off and you go back into space. You have to come in just at the right angle and I think that is a great conversation for us to have as a country."

(Albright) The diverse characters in ReEntry find themselves in different points on that metaphorical spectrum.

For example, some are so dependent on military routines, even in combat, that they repeatedly re-deploy instead of resuming peaceful post-war lives at home.

But maybe that has something to do with the welcome they find-or don't find-stateside, as in this scene from the play.

(Soldier) "Around here people don't treat you differently when they find out you're in the Marine Corps. Northern California, some lady called me a baby killer. Yeah, I was like in a bar. So some lady asked me what I did. ‘I'm in the Marine Corps.'

‘Oh, you kill people.'

I'm like, ‘I don't like to talk about that.' She says, ‘Oh, you're a baby killer.' I kind of got offended and then I was like, ‘I'm not gonna let her ignorance get to me, not gonna let it ruin my day, so she's like, ‘you're a baby killer, yeah?'

Got any kids?  Ah, she went off, I'm like. ‘look, I'm not a baby killer, okay? I just do what I gotta do.'"

(Albright) Re-Entry is full of dark humor like that. There are poignant moments, too, and shards of mental and physical pain. But Sanchez says she doesn't want to depress her audience -- she just wants to engage them.

That won't be hard for Jacob Sotak, a 27-year-old Dartmouth junior who joined the Army and spent a grueling year in Afghanistan.  He's hoping the play will chronicle not just sacrifice, but resilience as well.

(Sotak) "So here we are in the west thinking about all these men and women who have served and are broken and they've lost themselves and they're grumpy and they can't see the world as a happy place any more, but I'd like to sort of turn that on its head and say here we're gifted to have all these people who have seen that moral gray area and have had to make decisions and have come back carrying that with them, to help guide us to the things that are really important in our lives and give us a little insight into that."

(Albright)  Sotak, who grew up in Sharon, Vermont, will be part of post-performance discussions with the director and cast. One Dartmouth medical professor, Joe O'Donnell, plans to be there too-with a group.

(O'Donnell) "We'll be able to take our new generation of medical students on the way up, and actually there's a whole group coming from the VA to the play, and we'll have them be in a place where maybe they'll be able to understand a little better the experience that their patients are having".

(Albright) O'Donnell is also an oncologist at the VA Hospital in White River Junction, where he sees a lot of behavioral issues, post-traumatic stress disorder and brain trauma.

(O'Donnell) "And I think that the striking thing to me about both PTSD and these traumatic brain injuries and some of the other things we are seeing is the young people look so normal and yet they're so bruised in so many different ways, and so healthy looking people [are] coming back and these traumatic brain injuries are what strike me the most, these IED's blowing up near them and sort of rattle their brains and all the consequences of that".

(Albright) O'Donnell says the VA Hospital is a national center for patients with PTSD, and offers the latest in treatment of damaged brain cells. He says the psychiatric staff is helping soldiers manage the tough re-entry-the kind that Sanchez dramatizes.  So he hopes that some vets will watch "Re-Entry," relate to the characters, and then, maybe for the first time, seek help.

For VPR News, I'm Charlotte Albright

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