Pensacola, Florida
Monday November 12th 2018

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Telling: Pensacola

By Jennifer Leigh

Inside Pensacola Little Theatre recently a group of near-strangers sit down in a circle. It’s evening, but they’re pouring cups of coffee into mismatching mugs.

They only just met, but they’re talking about hopes and fears, losing faith and gaining strength. Some of these thoughts they have never even said out loud.

Without any acting experience, they’ll take their stories to the stage. And we will listen.

“I’m taking power back and reclaiming my story,” said Timothy Jones, a Navy veteran who served from 1998 to 2000. “This project gives us the opportunity to heal. We all have something to say.”

Preparing to tell
Since 2008, The Telling Project has helped bridge the communication gap between military veterans and American society. Based in Austin, Texas, it has created a chain reaction of 27 original performances in 16 different states. And now, it’s made its way to Pensacola.

“It’s about personalizing experiences that otherwise seem so distant to the vast majority of Americans,” said Max Rayneard, co-creator of The Telling Project. “A way to think about it is this: only 1 percent of Americans have served in post-9/11 conflicts, which means that, perhaps more than any prior generation, contemporary veterans are isolated.”

After a successful production in the Tampa Bay area this past spring, the Florida Humanities Council brought the project to Pensacola giving local veterans the chance to share their experiences.

“Our mission is to tell the stories of Florida with programs that go back to the original people of Florida to the current stories,” said Barbara O’Reilly, communications director for Florida Humanities Council.

Around 20 veterans answered the call from FHC to be interviewed for “Telling: Pensacola.” From there, it was narrowed down to six individuals. In August, each one sat down with Rayneard for an in-depth interview, and a script was written to weave the diverse experiences into one production.

“Everyone who sat down spoke with generosity and candor,” said Rayneard. “The stories are funny, poignant, and yes, painful. But overwhelmingly, the veterans amazed me with the clear-sighted strength with which they understand their experiences. Chances are, people will not have heard stories like these before.”

Listen and respect
The stories shared by the Pensacola veterans run the gamut from PTSD, to alcohol abuse, to rape and overall loss.

Scott Satterwhite, who served in the Navy and Marine Corps from 1990 to 1999, said the “Telling: Pensacola” cast is a good representation of what the military is like.

“Not every experience is an action film, and a lot of the things that happened to us aren’t the things anyone would put on a recruiting poster,” he said. “I think it’s good for our community to actually hear what vets say about what it’s like to be in the military.”

While these experiences stem from military service, you don’t have to be a veteran to take something away from it. In fact, the less you know about the military, the more enlightened you may become.

“It’s a whole population that needs to be listened to and respected as human beings and figure out ways to support them,” said Lisa Powers, director of “Telling: Pensacola.”

With a background in theatre and drama therapy, The Telling Project is a perfect fit for Powers. Her role as the director is to help the veterans feel confident and “support them theatrically.”

“They couldn’t make a better project for me,” she said.

Powers herself has no background in the military — “no connection, no exposure.” In the spring, she worked on “Telling: Tampa Bay,” which was also turned into a documentary that will premiere on PBS-affiliate stations in Florida.

At “Telling: Tampa Bay,” Powers witnessed veterans from the audience approach the cast and share their own stories and experiences.

That’s why these veterans signed up for The Telling Project. They still want to serve by letting others know it’s OK to talk.

“Mental health is one issue that is still not dealt with,” said Debra Russell, a Navy veteran who served from 1984 to 1997. “There’s that stigma, and yet you can only take in so much before you explode.”

The price of serving
Each of the veterans signed their lives away for a different reason — a sense of patriotic pride, to have a career or wanting to defend a war. What they all got in return was a sense of disillusionment.

Elliott James served in the Army from 2004 to 2006, and he likely crossed paths with another cast member, Tabitha Nichols, who served from 2003 to 2011.

“I was pro-everything, I wanted to protect America…it was a sense of duty,” he said.

James did one tour in Iraq where he manned a machine gun convoy. He also did checkpoint duty where one night he was run over by an equipment truck causing him to lose his right leg below the knee. He came back home with a different perspective about duty.

“You’re willing to send somebody off to war and not take responsibility for that war? When the Vietnam vets got home, they were spit on,” James said. “That’s still taking place today. You want to get spit on? Walk with a vet inside the nearest VA hospital.”

When Nichols signed up, she was just 17. “I thought I was a badass,” she said.

The daughter of an ex-Marine, she had hoped to join the military and retire by 37. But in 2005, during a tour in Iraq, she was injured by an RPG attack, which fractured her ribs, two cervical vertebrae and two lumbar vertebrae. Ten years later, she’s still in pain.

When she was honorably discharged, she was lost. At 24, while her peers were making their way in the work force, she was starting from scratch.

“I was just a kid,” she said. “I didn’t know shit about the world.”

It’s been nearly 50 years since Patrick McCrary dropped out of high school and signed up for the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War as a “testosterone-filled teenager.” Hearing stories from some of the cast has taught him that little has changed over the years, he said.

“I know what those kids are going through,” he added. “You don’t know who the damn enemy is. They would shake your hand one minute and put a bullet in your back the next.”

Witnessing war is not something you can be mentally prepared for, McCrary said.

“What man can do to man…the eyes see it, but the brain can’t quite process it,” he said.

It’s a “weird experience,” Satterwhite said of signing up for the military as a teenager. At the beginning of his service, he was a self-described “Reagan Youth.” When he left, he was a different person.

“Those people who are sent into harm’s way have hopes and dreams and are young. Very young,” he said. “I’d hope politicians think long hard about the way they use these people in the future.”

A different war
Even the service members who didn’t see war don’t walk away unscathed.

For years, Russell had kept the sexual trauma she faced in the Navy a secret. She thought no one would believe she had been raped.

“It’s very hard for me to talk about it,” she said. “I felt they would say ‘Oh, you know you wanted it.’ They can tell everybody and make them think you did it…the people that tell they made to feel so shamed.”

“Telling: Pensacola” will be the first time Russell publicly speaks about the abuse she suffered 20 years ago.

“I used to think I had the greatest job in the world…” she said.

When Jones was honorably discharged from the Navy, he had a hard time adjusting to reality while facing a host of mental issues. Like Russell, there was also that stigma, not to mention lack of adequate help.

“It was a rough transition back into civilian life,” he said. “I was abusing drugs and alcohol until I recently got my life back on track.”

Jones has a heart for homeless vets and recently completed a 203-mile walk raising awareness for the forgotten population.

“There are homeless vets at the park right now, but no one’s talking about that except for the fact that they’re an eyesore for the city,” he said.

Jones isn’t the only one advocating.

On Sunday, Nov. 8, right before the last performance of “Telling: Pensacola”, James will race in the Pensacola Marathon, wearing his prosthetic leg in honor of veterans. He rarely misses an opportunity to make a statement.

“Maybe I can have an effect,” he said. “What’s happened to me is probably the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

‘A new family’
It didn’t take long for the cast of “Telling: Pensacola to form a bond.

“It’s amazing that we came together from such a broad spectrum, but yet we’re so similar,” said Jones. “It’s a new family.”

Having the opportunity to connect with other veterans has been an added benefit behind the project.

“There’s a certain language, really, that’s unique to veterans,” said Satterwhite. “…It’s been great to have the opportunity to be in a room full of vets and feel a camaraderie that I didn’t even know I missed.”

What the cast hopes the audience gleans from the project is an honest look into military service.

“Most military stories are all sugar coated,” Russell said. “I don’t think any of us got a parade when we came home.”

“This is our parade,” Jones said.

TELLING: PENSACOLA
WHEN: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 7 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 8
WHERE: University of West Florida, main stage, 11000 University Pkwy. (Nov. 7); Pensacola Little Theatre, 400 S. Jefferson St. (Nov. 8)
COST: Free
DETAILS: thetellingproject.org