Anthony Torres was not on the front lines when he was sent to work at Abu Ghraib Hospital in Iraq in 2004, during the second U.S. assault on anti-U.S. insurgents down the road in Fallujah. In the aftermath of the killing and mutilation of four U.S. contractors and the discovery of torture at Abu Ghraib prison, the Iraq War was at its horrifying height. As a mental health technician, Torres’ job was to counsel Marines and soldiers struggling with fear, depression, rage and mental trauma.
But with nearby explosions rattling the sky every day, random death raining in on the camp in the form of mortars and stray fire (which killed a fellow medic as he stepped out of a trailer), the flow of wounded men, and the agonized stories he heard, Torres dealt with his own share of stress.
“Everyone deployed to Iraq is in combat,” says Torres, 33. “Any day you could be killed. But at some point you just have to give in. It can drive you crazy. Some people had panic attacks. I decided I’m just gonna keep doing my job.”
When he returned to his unit at Fort Hood, Texas, Torres was put in charge of 14 people at a substance abuse clinic. But even among fellow military, he felt out of place.
“Most people had never experienced anything on that scale — they felt naïve to me,” he says. “I had looked on the other side of the door. I had gotten used to living in a life or death situation.”
Revealing the experiences of veterans like Torres is at the heart of Basetrack Live, a multi-media theater piece on a national tour being presented Saturday at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center. The show, part of Miami Dade College’s Live Arts program, is at the center of a slate of efforts aimed at helping veterans tell their stories, and getting their families and communities to understand them.
“You’re talking to 21- or 22-year-olds who don’t have the experience to understand what they went through,” says Tony Colmenares, 54, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel who is director of Military and Veterans Programs for MDC and is helping MDC Live reach out to South Florida veterans. “They’re all alone. Their family doesn’t understand them. They can find themselves on the street.
“Part of the challenge military veterans have when they come back is they can’t decompress. They all have stories. This allows them to get back in.”
The Basetrack programming includes a creative writing and storytelling workshop for veterans led by Miami theater artist Teo Castellanos that culminates in a performance during the O, Miami Poetry Festival in April; a photo exhibit at the Betsy Hotel in South Beach; and an online album of photos from South Florida veterans organized by public radio station WLRN. On Wednesday MDC Wolfson Campus will host “Stories We Carry,” a forum for veterans and civilians.
MDC Live director Kathryn Garcia was inspired in part by her own sense of separation from the people who have fought for their country.
“I’m one of those people who hasn’t been impacted by war — most people haven’t,” she said. “Art has a role in shining light on issues that need attention. We didn’t want to just present the show but build awareness in Miami about the veterans’ community. It is such an invisible thing, and we wanted to make it less so.”
Basetrack Live grew out of One-Eight Basetrack, a project created by war photographer Teru Kuwayama for which photographers embedded with a Marine battalion in Afghanistan in 2010-2011, as well as those troops, uploaded photos and stories onto a website that became a social media phenomenon, a new way for service members and their families to share their experiences. The project inspired a production at the Juilliard School that was turned into a professional show that New York Times critic Charles Isherwood called one of the 10 best theater performances of 2014; veteran and National Book Award winning author Phil Klay described it as “a viscerally powerful depiction of war and its aftermath.”
The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation funded the original website through its Knight News Challenge program and gave a $50,000 Knight Arts Challenge grant to MDC Live for its Basetrack outreach efforts.
“Culture is a way of telling our stories, our history, when we can dial into an issue in a different way,” says Dennis Scholl, Knight’s vice-president for arts programs. He was intrigued by the project in part because of his father, who was proud of having been in the Navy. “I have no relationship to [the military other than] my father talking about it,” Scholl says. “So it’s very interesting for it to be such an intense focus of this series.”
Basetrack Live incorporates photos from the original website with videos and interviews of veterans and their families, and live music, centered around the story of Marine A.J. Czubai (played by an actor who is a former Marine sergeant and Iraq veteran) and his wife, Melissa.
Anne Hamburger, the show’s executive producer, says they worked to avoid the clichés of heroic or victimized veterans. “So much about war is very sensationalized,” Hamburger says. “We’re showing a realistic, sensitive portrait of a whole group of the American population that is not understood by many, many people.”
Hamburger, who oversaw interviews with four dozen veterans, says she was struck by their resilience and humor and moved by the stories of men who often said they were motivated by the attacks of 9/11 to join up as teenagers. “These young guys go off to war and they feel invincible,” she says.
They are not, of course. The multiple years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq mean that the 2.7 million veterans who fought there were often deployed over and over. Beyond the horrors of physical injury, those repeated combat stints mean those soldiers suffer from high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder, as high as 31 percent by some estimates. Unlike the World Wars or the Vietnam War, when conscription meant that a broad swath of people fought or were connected to someone who did, today’s volunteer military makes up less than 1 percent of the population. They return abruptly to a society that mostly doesn’t know or understand them. The divisive politics that have surrounded the Iraq and Afghanistan wars can also separate the public from those who fight.
Younger veterans, who join in their late teens before they have really grown up, are often most lost when they return to civilian life. But service members of all ages feel alienated, not just from a society that touts them as heroes but in many ways seems oblivious to them, but even to their families — who endure their own trauma. The result is high rates of alcoholism, homelessness, domestic violence and suicide — effects that can last for years. Many of the 22 veterans who commit suicide every day fought in Vietnam.
“The majority of veterans don’t fit in anymore,” says Colmenares, who served for 30 years. He sees student veterans at MDC struggling to figure out what to do with their lives. “Most people say no one cares about me, we’ve been forgotten. ... I see a lot of veterans who are very bitter.”
Torres, who since his service has received a masters in psychology, has also turned to writing to process his experience. He is one of the small group in Castellanos’ weekly workshop, and he is also helping MDC connect with veterans.
“If you don’t tell your story, someone else will,” Torres says. “Basetrack is an opportunity for these vets to express themselves and bridge that gap back into their community. It’s a way of expressing the life of the Marine.”
MDC is offering 400 free tickets to Basetrack to veterans and their families. Wednesday’s “Stories We Carry” offers guided conversations for vets and civilians at each of the 22 cities where Basetrack is being performed. The hope is that participants will continue the dialogue after the show moves on.
“Stories We Carry” is headed by Scott Thompson, a former army chaplain who directs the Veterans Mental Health Coalition of New York. He believes the country needs to find a better way to welcome the people who fight for it back into their communities and normal lives.
“So much is shouldered by such a small percentage in this population,” Thompson says. “We are responsible for that. And we have not figured out as a community how to handle the weight of that and transfer it back on our shoulders. This is about healing the rift between veterans and civilians in this country. There’s too much fix-a-vet going on — we either hero-ize or pathologize them. This is not about services and VA benefits, although those are good and important. But the greater need is to have a community to share the experience of war collectively.”
Not sharing that experience is not only unfair to veterans, Thompson says, but to a society that in many ways does not understand the deeper consequences and meaning of war.
“This is a national conversation about war and healing that’s not just about veterans,” Thompson says. “Everyone needs to have this conversation.”
If you go
What: ‘Basetrack Live’
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, 10950 SW 211th St., Miami
▪ ‘Stories We Carry,’ a forum for veterans and civilians, noon Wednesday at Centre Gallery, MDC Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave., Bldg. 1, 3rd Flr., Miami.
▪ ‘Exhibit of photos by original ‘Basetrack’ photographer Balazs Gardi, at The Betsy Hotel, 1440 Ocean Dr., Miami Beach, 305-531-6100.
▪ ‘‘Veterans Among Us,’ a digital photo album of South Florida veterans, will be shown on WLRN’s website and shared with ‘Basetrack Live’; area veterans can submit photos at wlrn.org.
▪ ‘Live Arts Veterans Lab performance, 3 p.m. April 19 during the O, Miami Poetry Festival; Carlton Hotel, 1433 Collins Ave., Miami Beach.
Info on all programs at 305-237-3010 or mdclivearts.org