Coming to grips with the loss of cognitive functioning and codependency on family members are a couple of the issues returning veterans with traumatic brain injuries experience. They are issues happening in living rooms and around kitchen tables all over America.
“And the mass of people are unaware of it,” said Adam McCabe, who was motivated by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to join the Marines.
As a way of informing the general public, McCabe and a group of veterans are acting in “Make Sure It’s Me,” a play written in 2009 by Kate Wenner, who interviewed doctors, veterans, wives and mothers dealing with brain injury.
“This is a great vehicle to get a snapshot, a glimpse, an inside view into what a lot of homes look like, what a lot of people are dealing with,” McCabe said.
Directed by Brad Moore, a Colorado Mountain College theater instructor, the play shows today in Glenwood Springs, Friday at Aspen’s Paepcke Auditorium and Saturday in Vail. All shows begin at 7:30 p.m. and are $20 at the door. Proceeds support veterans programs like Huts for Vets, an organization that puts on free wilderness trips for returning service members.
McCabe served on active duty from 2002 to 2006, including two deployments to Iraq, and earned a Purple Heart and two Commendations for Bravery. His transition from combat to civilian life has been replete with symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder such as anger, substance abuse and depression. But now he is devoted as a veteran advocate, serving as a Huts for Vets board and staff member.
Aspen native Amber Sherman, who served as a combat medical corpsman with the Marines, spent seven months in Iraq, seeing action in the battle of Fallujah and earning a combat Action Service Ribbon. She was honorably discharged after five years of service and will be attending Huts for Vets’ first all-female trip this summer.
Sherman plays Army Staff Sgt. Annie Nichols, with whom she found a lot of common ground despite the fact that they served in different branches of the military. She said she hopes the play will be informative to those living in the Roaring Fork Valley, a place that is particularly isolated.
“A lot of people here are really secluded and don’t really know and experience a lot of our veterans,” Sherman said. “And that’s really just the nature of where we live. So I think it’s good to portray that and give a little eye-opener of what’s going on, what went on and now why we’re dealing with some of the issues we are that are creating all these problems.”
Michael Lemke, a medically retired Army sergeant who fought during the invasion in Iraq, said this is just the beginning for the U.S. and the problems it will see with returning veterans. McCabe said some estimate that 600,000 active-duty service members will be forced out and into the general population as the size of the military is reduced.
“There is a slow train coming,” Lemke said. “We’re just experiencing the first trickle of what’s going to be a deluge of people who need a lot of help. It’s a tsunami of need that’s coming down the pike.”
McCabe said that if a draft had been implemented, and it hadn’t been just 0.4 to 0.6 percent of the American population serving voluntarily, the public would’ve put a stop to both wars sooner.
“If, all of a sudden, everyone’s sons and daughters, neighbors, friends and nephews are getting called up to go to war, ... all of a sudden it’s right in everyone’s minds. It’s right in your face. It would’ve stopped. It’s what stopped Vietnam,” McCabe said.
Also on hand for the experience is Dan Hoye, who served in the U.S. Navy for eight years as a corpsman. As a student at the Art Institute of Chicago on the GI Bill, he’s documenting veterans and their experiences over the next few months.
McCabe said Huts for Vets is a way to live in the solution. Agreeing with him was Mike Greenwood, who served in the U.S. Army from 2002 to 2008 and attended the same Huts for Vets trip as Lemke.
“We went into the program, and there was no crutch,” Greenwood said of Huts. “That’s it: You set the problem aside, and you just go fix it. That was the coolest thing. Even if you don’t fix it, you just go, and you know you have it. It’s just not something that’s sitting on your head like an anvil.”
Moore, who is accustomed to directing acting students, said he was surprised by the friendly jockeying between the different military groups. His opinion is that because the play is being put on by veterans — which has never been done before with “Make Sure It’s Me” — it is that much more compelling.
“It’s really amazing how well these people, who are not actors at all, have taken on this project and have really given such amazing life to these characters,” Moore said.
Sally Oates, a graduate of Aspen High School, had a different perspective from the others performing the play. She watched her husband, now-retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jeremy Oates, deploy to Afghanistan five times. Playing the part of an Army wife, she said the first rehearsal brought back old feelings she had avoided for a long time.
“Just some place you tried not to go I had to revisit. But for the sake of something good,” Oates said.