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America at War

From the Theater of War to the Theater of Plays

Krissy Clark

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Vets on Stage
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When you pull the trigger on an M16 you cause a chemical reaction.

First a firing pin hits the center of the bullet cartridge, which makes a little spark. The spark ignites the gun powder inside the cartridge. The gun powder burns up. A wisp of smoke rises from the muzzle, and reaches your nose.

But right now, it's the smell of Chinese food that's in the air. It's the first all-cast read-through of "The Wolf." The director, Rick Pagano, is handing out napkins, and teasing his cast for their manners. "Come on guys, get civilized. You're looking like actors," he says. Actor Sean Huze takes mild offense at this joke. "I mean I went two months without a bath you know, or a shower in Iraq," he snaps. "We ate with our fingers over there. So we're all civilized now."

Sean Huze is a single dad from Baton Rouge, La. He's a former Marine. He joined up on September 12, 2001 and fought on the front lines during the invasion of Iraq. He's also the artistic director of Vetstage. He wrote the play "The Wolf," and will perform the leading role.

"I love getting to work with not only some really talented actors," he says, "but also some really talented actors that know what gun powder smells like."

There are lots of ways to divvy up the world. But Sean Huze keeps coming back to one. The smell of gun powder. It's a phrase that comes up over and over again when Huze talks. "Veterans are very seldom given their own voice," Huze says. "All too often we have our experience defined for us. By the media. And the politicians who largely couldn't even tell you what gun powder smells like."

Not all of the vets in "The Wolf" have seen combat, but they've all been exposed to burnt gunpowder, and to the military mind set. Damian Leek is a professional actor who got a medical discharge before he was sent to Vietnam. He was in the army for less than five months.

"Four months, three weeks, five days, six hours, 13 minutes and 37 seconds," to be exact, he says. But Leek still remembers his time as a soldier. "There are moments when I'm walking down the street," he says, "and I'm going 'Left, Left, Left, Right, Left.' It never leaves you."

A few weeks later, the cast is rehearsing in Hollywood. Huze plays the character of Joey Dalriva, a disgraced Iraq vet locked in a military psych ward. The play follows Joey as he grapples with his memories of Iraq, and searches for a place in civilian life. In one scene, Joey's approached by his military psychiatrist, Lieutenant Commander Bell, played by a civilian actor named Blake Robbins.

Bell notices Joey is still up late one night, and comes in to Joey's room. Joey asks him for a smoke.

Like the playwright Huze, his character Joey smokes a lot of cigarettes, and keeps his dog tags stuffed down his shirt. Also like Huze, Joey struggles with PTSD, and tries to make sense of what he saw, and did in Iraq. Here's an exchange between Joey and his psychiatrist Lt. Commander Bell:

Joey: I mean I know you really want to help us out Sir, but you're fucking clueless sir.
Bell: Really?
Joey: Yeah, what we've been through, it doesn't make us less responsible for our actions. It's just who we are now.

But Huze, and his character Joey, are not completely alike. Joey faces a possible court-martial for murdering an Iraqi family. He has become aggressive and violent. Here's more from that same scene:

Joey: You ever been in combat sir? Ever?
Bell: I've spent 15 years on different psychiatric wards, dealing with the fall out from combat, training, all kinds of trauma. In my own way-
Joey: So 'no,' right?

***

Diet Coke cans and newspaper articles about the war are scattered around the theater. But the cast doesn't talk about the war much. There's a gun in one of the scenes in the play, and during the break, the director gives some notes to the civilian actors about how to use it safely. Huze leans against the door to the theater and smokes.

Besides the smell of gun powder, he has another way of dividing the world. There are wolves, and there's the flock. "American society, we would be the flock," Huze says. "And the flock are sheep. We ask a segment of the flock to become warriors, and the warriors are wolves."

In the play Huze asks the question, "What happens to the wolves when they come back home? Is there a place for them in the flock?"

But as good as Huze is talking about the metaphors of his play, he avoids talking too much about his own experiences in Iraq. He says hates the stupid questions that civilians ask him now he's back home. "A whole litany of stupid questions: 'Did you kill anybody?' 'How many people did you kill?' I mean seriously."

Huze says it's not the intensity of the death and violence that civilians misunderstand. It's the fact that after a while, you stop feeling it. "I saw a little boy that was killed in Nazaria that I probably think about quite a bit," he says. "And I honestly didn't care. I mean it registered, because I've thought about it." He pauses here for a good 30 seconds. "I've thought about it a lot," he finishes finally. "It was difficult for me to come to terms with how insensitive I felt at the time, and really judging who I was in combat by a civilian standard, and really feeling a lot of guilt and remorse about that. Not just being a party to the violence, but not feeling it."

Maybe that's why Huze is such a good actor. Because it's the only place where he can work out what he saw in Iraq, where he can overcome the numbness with dramatic emotion. Literally. A stage-hand taps Sean on the shoulder.

"Hold on one sec. Am I in?" he asks.

Sean has to get back on stage to block out some stage combat for a scene. As he leaves I remember something he told me the first night I met him, at the read-through of the play.

"Combat's combat. I mean it's fucking real," he said. "And with this art, we're telling a story that we hope impacts people so they go out of that theater and they do something real. But I mean, combat, nothing compares to it."

***

When you pull the trigger on an M16 you cause a chemical reaction. The gun powder burns up. A trail of smoke rises from the muzzle, and reaches your nose. But more important than that is the bullet that comes screaming out of the gun barrel faster than the speed of sound. And where that bullet goes.

More stories from our America at War series

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