- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 30, 2009


The key to the military’s difficulty overcoming the stigma of mental illness may lie in 2,000-year-old plays and a modern interpretation.

Director Bryan Doerries’ recent repackaging of ancient Greek tragedies, written by Sophocles, offers a new prism to view the effects of battle on the U.S. military’s own warriors.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have affected the mental health of many men and women in uniform. Yet it remains a challenge to persuade those who need help to get it.

Mr. Doerries’ “Theater of War” project uses the words of the ancient Greeks to draw out the similar feelings faced by veterans.

On April 2, students and faculty at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda listened to selected readings from Sophocles’ “Ajax” and “Philoctetes.”

The performance is simple - at a table and without props or music. Each actor assumes multiple roles.

“But the reading only sets the stage for the real work,” Mr. Doerries said. “It’s the town hall-style discussion that follows that’s most satisfying for [myself and the cast]. It’s obvious to us that we are witnessing a modern version of some ancient postwar, communal process of reintegrating veterans into democratic society.”

The project was born out of a reading for an audience of about 400 soldiers, sail ors, airmen and Marines at a Navy combat stress conference in August.

“We were scheduled for 90 minutes, with 30 minutes of follow-up discussion,” Mr. Doerries said. “The 30-minute discussion became two hours. Fifty officers, chaplains, enlisted personnel and generals’ wives lined up to speak at the microphone, quoting from the plays and relating them to their lives. We finally had to stop. The discussion could easily have continued another two hours.”

Those who have seen the readings appreciate the connection to the plays.

“We couldn’t learn this by watching [Vietnam War movie] ‘Platoon’ or something,” noted second-year medical student Jason Hoskins, an Air Force second lieutenant. “Sophocles tells us that the [mental-health issues] we see playing out today are as old as humanity. We don’t need to feel shame. We don’t need to find blame. It’s not about whether post-traumatic stress disorder is real. It’s just a normal consequence of war. In other words, if you’re struggling, then go get help.”

“Ajax” is about a decorated soldier who experiences a psychotic break and kills a herd of livestock, believing they are his enemies. Filled with self-pity and vengeance, he commits suicide and is found by his wife and fellow troops.

In “Philoctetes,” a soldier, wounded on the way to battle, is abandoned by his own army and left to die on an island. The play focuses on a junior officer’s struggle to bring the wounded, recalcitrant warrior to care and assistance.

Mr. Doerries notes that Sophocles was a great general as well as a playwright and a religious leader in Athens.

“Theater of War” is not the first time Mr. Doerries found inspiration from Sophocles. In 2005, he began “The Philoctetes Project,” starting with a series of readings in the New York area. The “Theater of War,” cast includes Oscar nominee David Strathairn, Lili Taylor and Michael Ealy.

Mr. Doerries is hoping to bring his project to military sites across the country over the next two years.

c Army Col. Charles C. Engel is a senior medical corps scientist at the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda.

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