My brother’s number was 16. My sister’s fiancé drew the number 2.
If you grew up as I did, at the tail end of the Vietnam War, you know what those numbers mean. I remember one sun-drenched and breezy summer afternoon, sitting on the front porch of my house in Baltimore, watching my whole family—six kids and my parents—process the news from the draft lottery for military service. The fierce public opposition to a war that was dividing our country and killing soldiers by the tens of thousands had become personal. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” asked then 27-year-old navy veteran John Kerry. That day, we knew the answer: We’d been there long enough. It was time to get out, not send more troops, and especially not my brothers. The war had come home.
I remember, too, listening raptly to my mother’s accounts of her brothers’ service during World War II. One uncle was a decorated pilot who flew numerous high-risk missions in Europe. Unlike Vietnam veterans, who too often were met with scorn upon their return, these heroes were celebrated for their service and their stories were eagerly recounted. But no stories were as stirring as those that ended with “the boys came home.”
Today, many U.S. citizens have no direct connection to any service members, let alone to the less than one percent of our population that has been deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are no draft cards to burn, no war bonds to buy. Except for those immigrants fleeing strife in their countries of origin, most young Americans have no direct experience with the grim realities of war. With the end of the Iraq War in 2011, and 33,000 more soldiers drawing down from Afghanistan, our service men and women are finally coming home, but not to the celebrations of WWII nor the condemnations of Vietnam. They are returning to a country that has other priorities—coming home to challenges like unemployment, homelessness, mental illness and estrangement from their families and communities.
That is why I take heart from the rising number of theatres supporting military families—and artists connecting with the stories of veterans. In our July/August 2011 issue of American Theatre, we reported on two examples: Theater of War’s staging of Sophocles’ Ajax at Guantanamo military base, and KJ Sanchez’s ReEntry, a documentary theatre piece based on interviews with marines returning from service. Both exemplify the power of theatre to help veterans process their experience while bringing some measure of the realities of distant wars home. It is perhaps especially fitting that this year’s Pulitzer-winning play, Quiara Alegría Hudes’s Water by the Spoonful, is part of a trilogy whose central character is an Iraq War veteran. In September of this year, “Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dreams Project,” a multimedia collaboration between the jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer and the poet Mike Ladd, featured poems, songs and video monologues written and inspired by veterans of color.
How can we turn these bright spots into a movement to truly welcome our service members into our theatres? This fall, TCG launched a new program called Blue Star Theatres. In partnership with Blue Star Families and with support from MetLife Foundation, the Blue Star Theatres program will connect a variety of theatre offerings to military families across our country. This initiative recognizes their profound contributions and seeks to build stronger connections between theatres, military families and their communities.
Participating theatres will offer ticket discounts, job opportunities, playwriting classes on military bases, special events and more. We also hope to raise awareness of the challenges that many returning veterans face. As of this writing, I’m thrilled to share that we’ve blown past our initial goal of 50 participating theatres.
An impressive roster of theatres, military personnel and government officials joined us for the first two Blue Star Theatres press conferences. It was inspiring to hear high-ranking military officials testify to the power of theatre in healing communities, and moving to watch local officials acknowledge the challenges of reintegrating returning veterans. There was, above all, a palpable gratitude for the sacrifices made by the men and women who have served our country with such courage and distinction, and a deeply felt commitment to welcoming them home.
We are now in the season of thanks, of giving and receiving, and of making resolutions for the year to come. Let us resolve to give thanks to all those who serve in harm’s way, whether on battlefields overseas or as first responders here at home. Let us also thank those activists working daily toward a more just and peaceful world.
And let us remember that theatre itself can be a form of service, giving voice to the voiceless, reconnecting diverse communities and sparking communal light as the days grow dark.
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