The Veterans Center for the Performing Arts, an L.A.-based performance organization, arrived at USC Monday night to perform an original play called Fit for Society in the Ronald Tutor Campus Center Grand Ballroom.
The performance, which featured military veterans as actors, received a standing ovation from the audience, which itself was peppered with veterans.
Stephan Wolfert, who left a distinguished career in the military for a life in theater, explained afterward during a reception that he originally wrote the play as a result of the frustration he felt when he saw veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq face the same problems as veterans from earlier generations.
“We started seeing the same stories coming in [from Iraq and Afghanistan] that we experienced [in the Gulf War],” Wolfert said. “And a lot of our mentors are from the Vietnam era, and they’re going, ‘We’re seeing the same crap!’”
Despite the cyclical nature of war, Wolfert and his writing partner Brian Monahan hoped to use theater to raise civilian awareness of what veterans have to endure after coming home.
“There is a lack of understanding on the civilian side on basic things, like how to approach a homecoming veteran,” said Brian Monahan, co-writer of Fit for Society. “Veterans are coming home to civilians who really don’t have a language to … offer the support that they deserve.”
Wolfert and Monahan’s feeling of discontent shone brightly in the characters that appeared on the stage, each with a unique story and perspective.
One was a disgruntled female Air Force pilot who denounced the way the U.S. government treated female soldiers. Another was a retired Army soldier who unsuccessfully tried to cover up his emotional insecurities with a barrage of sarcastic remarks. Monahan himself played a legless Marine who spent a good five minutes complaining about how terrible the food was during his service.
At no time was actual combat addressed. Rather than mentioning guns or tanks — topics that movies and TV shows regularly regurgitate -— the play focused on the little details of what veterans face every day, such as night sweats, emptiness and suicidal tendencies.
In fact, suicide is one of Wolfert’s biggest fears when it comes to fellow veterans. “Eighteen veterans kill themselves everyday,” Wolfert said. “From the time you walked in [to the end of the play], one [veteran] has killed himself, and another is prepping to … that number will only rise if we don’t do something.”
Wolfert believes those harrowing statistics could be eased if the U.S. military spends more energy on transitioning its veterans to civilian life.
“The military has eight weeks of basic training in; couldn’t we have four weeks of basic training out?” he said.
There is no time to wait for the government to help, Monahan said.
“My biggest fear is that society does nothing; that we sit back and … withdraw our safety nets for returning veterans from Afghanistan,” Monahan said.
The Veterans Center for the Performing Arts puts on this show night after night to raise civilian awareness and to spread a simple message of empathy. And on Monday night, a packed ballroom got the message, loud and clear.