US Marine Corps Sergeant Samuel Dillon was on patrol in Afghanistan four years ago when he was hit by sniper fire. After undergoing three surgeries, Dillon earned an early discharge and returned home to Boston, where he is pursuing a sociology degree at Suffolk University.
Dillon, 26, is one of 140 military veterans enrolled at Suffolk and is among a select few whose stories form the basis of an unusual theatrical production being staged this weekend at Suffolk’s Modern Theatre. Titled “At Ease,” the play portrays the lives of seven military veterans who, like Dillon, served their country during wartime before returning to civilian life as Suffolk students. In Dillon’s case, he did tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The play touches upon aspects of military life ranging from basic training to postservice depression, as portrayed by seven student actors playing the roles of student-veterans. The product of hours of interviews between the actors and their subjects, it represents an intensely personal collaboration between two groups of students who might otherwise have little to do with one another and whose perspective on wartime service could hardly be more different.
“This is definitely unique, to have so many vets from different backgrounds and experiences having their stories told together,” Dillon said during a prerehearsal meeting this week. “If nothing else, this [play] humanizes people who served in these wars.”
“At Ease” is timely, to be sure. Nearly 414,000 military veterans are out of uniform and back on American campuses this semester, according to the Veterans Benefits Administration. In many instances, these veterans are attending classes with students younger and far less worldly than they are and often more antiwar, as well.
Jillian Couillard, one of the student actors, said that working on the play has made quite an impact on her own life.
“It’s important to understand they’ve been in a whole different world,” she said. “You could be in a firefight at any minute. You sleep with your rifle. You bring it to the bathroom. We don’t have that problem here. We’re in a safe zone.”
Dillon has a small onstage role as a drill instructor, as does another student-veteran, Jim Mihelidakis, who served with the Army infantry in Iraq. Proceeds from the two scheduled performances, on Friday and Saturday, benefit a scholarship fund for students who have served in the military or are descendants of veterans.
“At Ease,” which will be performed Saturday at 8 p.m., was conceived by theater professor Caitlin Langstaff, the production’s director. Concerned about the disconnection between returning veterans and other students, Langstaff saw this project as one way to bridge that gap.
“I had Jim in my acting class, and he’d often sit in the back not saying much,” Langstaff recalled. “For many vets, as I’ve come to learn, they feel safer and more comfortable that way.”
In reading Mihelidakis’s homework assignments, Langstaff realized how much anger and frustration he harbored since coming home. “I wanted to know more,” she said.
Late last spring, Langstaff recruited a group of student actors and began pairing them with veterans, Dillon and Mihelidakis being two of them. The veteran participants are Army Specialist Audra White-Stadnik, 29; Navy boatswain’s mate Katherine Flynn, 32; and three Marine officers, John Mensch, 25, Andrew Wallace, 25, and Ryan Walsh, 25.
Racial and gender lines were deliberately crossed, said Langstaff. Couillard, for example, a 21-year old theater major, was assigned to Walsh, a Marine corporal who was wounded in Afghanistan and has a steel plate in one leg.
“I didn’t know Ryan at first and tried to rid myself of any expectations of what a Marine is like,” Couillard said. “We went to dinner and started talking. I’d ask, Where did you grow up? Any pets? Siblings? From there — ” she paused and laughed, “we went to the rifle range.” Couillard had never held a gun before. Walsh handed her an M4 carbine and told her to fire away.
“You’re usually portraying characters who are made up,” she noted. “These are real people, right here, so you want to do them the right way. With Ryan, I feel like I’ve taken a part of him with me.”
Others in the cast recall similar experiences. Having started out with trust issues, they became friends, notwithstanding differences in their personal backgrounds or political beliefs. Some aspects of their wartime service were too personal or too traumatic to revisit, Dillon and others acknowledge, and others cut from the final script, at the interviewees’ request. (Langstaff granted them final say.)
Hours of transcribed conversation went into the finished script. The play is divided into four broad sections: premilitary life, induction, serving in uniform, and coming home.
Katherine Flynn, who served aboard a ship deployed near the Suez Canal, was wary at first of discussing issues like sexual harassment. She now calls the experience “kind of cathartic.”
Portraying her is Gabrielle Womack, 20, a junior history major, whose brother served in the Navy. Womack said he rarely talked about his military service, but that changed once she began working on the play.
“He opened up to me about being there,” Womack wrote in an e-mail, “and I felt like I got my brother back.”
For White-Stadnik, work on “At Ease” brought up the guilt she felt when her Army platoon was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq. Nobody died as a result, but because she was operating a security camera focused on the area, she felt she should have been able to warn them. Since coming home, she has battled depression and anxiety, feelings she explored with 22-year old senior theater major Ashley Hevey, who portrays her.
“Caitlin did an excellent job pairing personalities,” said White-Stadnik. “After a while with Ashley, it was like having a friend tell part of my story.”
Paired with Mihelidakis was Adam Santaniello, 21, a senior theater major. Playing a combat soldier was about as far out of character as he could imagine himself, he admits.
“Then Jim started talking about how as a kid he was fascinated by war and war games, and it was very poignant,” said Santaniello. “He gave really strong opinions about the length of deployment, what it does to people, and how he’s dealing with the pace of society now.”
Seated nearby, Mihelidakis admitted he will not fully open up about all he saw and did in uniform unless he is talking to another veteran. Still, he said, this play could help the current student generation and all Americans better understand the war and those who fight it.
“A lot of people would say: ‘Look how bad these [soldiers] are. That’s a murderer, that’s an atrocity,’” he said. “Instead of taking personal responsibility for electing our leaders and causing the war, in a sense.”
Langstaff was motivated in part by dramas portraying returning combat veterans in one of three ways: as heroes, villains, or mentally unstable. “For me, this piece is not about war,” she said. “It’s about soldiers choosing to go in and how that experience affected them, coming home.”
Her hope is to create an environment “where students say, ‘OK, I have a better sense of these [veterans] now. Can I know more?’ It would be healthy to get that conversation rolling, so people aren’t so intimidated by the unknown.”