Brain injuries: The Agent Orange of the Iraq War

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“Make Sure It’s Me” is the first production in the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center’s new studio theater space. Photo by John Moore.

 

By John Moore

Sept. 19, 2012

The Vietnam War had Agent Orange, a lethal herbicidal toxin that exposed up to 5 million Vietnamese people and at least 70,000 soldiers on both sides to cancer as well as nerve, digestive, skin and respiratory disorders.

The signature injury of the Iraq War is TBI: Traumatic Brain Injury, most caused by roadside bombs, or improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Even as early as 2005, it was estimated that 31 percent of all battle-injured American soldiers in Iraq were suffering from TBI. But the U.S. military had no plan for even identifying brain trauma until 2006.

Because TBI symptoms don’t always manifest themselves as physical injuries, thousands of soldiers were either being diagnosed as mentally ill or, worse, they were not being diagnosed at all, and therefore not receiving any treatment.

TBI can sometimes manifest itself in twitching symptoms similar to Parkinson’s Disease,  but most victims suffer in unseen silence from anxiety disorders, panic attacks, mood swings, depression, chronic pain, sexual disfunction, insomnia, OCD, impaired memory and light sensitivity. TBI victims are more likely to engage in domestic, alcohol and drug abuse.

As of a year ago, the Veterans for America estimated that 400,000 American soldiers have suffered brain injuries since 2003. That represents 20 percent of the 2 million who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And as late as 2006, the Army was openly calling many of those claiming to have brain injuries from combat liars and fakes.

Which brings us to the Fine Arts Center Theatre Company’s workshop production of Kate Wenner’s developing new play, “Make Sure It’s Me,” playing through Sept. 23 in Colorado Springs. Wenner is a former producer for the TV news program “20/20.” Her play, which we have selected as one of the most intriguing offerings of the fall theater season, focuses on five vets injured in IED explosions in Iraq, and the impact on their families. It’s set in a university brain trauma clinic led by a headstrong doctor who blows the whistle on the U.S. military by letting the New York Times know that the incidence of TBI has reached epidemic proportions.

I led a talkback after the performance, which was attended only by about a dozen people, but several of whom spoke afterward of being deeply moved. That got me thinking about why writers write – and what writing formats they choose. I often sit in a theater watching a play with 127 scenes, thinking, “This writer clearly wanted to write a film, but he didn’t have the money to make it, so he’s passing this off as a play.”

“Make Sure It’s Me” doesn’t want to be a film. But, without having met Wenner, a fellow journalist whose play is based largely on interviews she conducted at the nearby Fort Carson military base, I speculated as to why she chose to wrote “Make Sure It’s Me” as a play, as opposed to, say, a nonfiction book or a news segment for “20/20.” Each would have their advantages. One segment of “20/20” might be seen by 6 million people, instantly interjecting an underreported social problem into the national dialogue – much like her protagonist in the play going to The New York Times.

The visceral benefits of the live theater are obvious, most evidently the ability to directly relate to an audience the human consequences of TBIs. But a production like “Make Sure It’s Me” will be seen by perhaps 200 people in its eight performances in Colorado Springs. Live theater takes much longer to make any kind of social impact, and this is an issue that requires urgent call and response. I once noted that “The Book of Mormon,” which still hasn’t played to less than a capacity house on Broadway, will have to be sold-out for 1,200 weeks to be seen by as many people who took in “The Hangover Part II” on its opening weekend alone. Seriously.

So could Wenner, who worked with the actors in Colorado Springs for about a week before leaving town on Saturday, do more good with her damning research by simply using the power of television?

That was one of a number of topics cast members and audiences tackled after Sunday’s performance.

Here are selected excerpts from the conversation:

John Moore: As a journalist, when you consider the facts as they are presented in this play, you’d think this would be a bigger ongoing issue in the national media. Does it surprise you that a problem that is so prevalent is not being talked about all that much?

Actor Mark Cannon, who plays Lt. Col. Banks: I was in the military, so, no, I am not surprised. I served as an Infantryman for six years. I was hit by several IEDs in Iraq and was diagnosed with slight TBI, like 10 percent … so I know these people.

John Moore: What’s it like, then, playing a member of the bureaucracy that works to keep this information from coming to light?

Mark Cannon: They can’t admit to it because it’s expensive, and it might show that they’re possibly losing control of the situation.

Actor Sallie Walker, who plays Sue Daniels, mother of a TBI soldier: Like any medical arena, there is a CYOA (“Cover Your Own Ass”) aspect to this. … because the military’s job is not really diagnostic. It’s not medicine. Once you’re out, OK, now you’re in the V.A.’s hands.

Actor Jen Lennon, who plays Sandy Ames, wife of a TBI soldier: As Lt. Col. Banks says in the play, ours is a voluntary military. And I don’t think a lot of people would volunteer if they knew going in some of the statistics in terms of brain injury, and the ramifications of what happens when you come home, like (increased) divorce rates.

Sallie Walker: Those soldiers who matriculated out of the service and were never diagnosed now make up a large percentage of our homeless population. They are diagnosed as mentally ill by doctors who have no knowledge (of their IED injuries).

Chris Medina, who plays TBI soldier Jackson Cantrell: And no one is responsible for tracking them down, either. So that’s where the community comes into play. What do we do to help our fellow citizens who are in that situation to get out of it?

Sallie Walker: Start a national registry. Something. It’s got to be a grassroots thing.

John Moore: So why do you suppose the playwright chose to write this as a play, as opposed to a novel or a segment on “20/20”?

Sallie Walker: The playwright wants the play to inform people, but not like a “20-20” piece. I think it’s great to couch something like this in a presentational way, because then you really get to see what’s going on.

Jen Lennon: It’s easy to gloss over statistics. It’s harder to see someone’s personal story unfold.

Sallie Walker: It’s visceral.

Ashley Crockett, who plays Dr. Jo Fitch: The playwright said what ripped her heart out was the first time she saw this story talked about on the national news, and how this sergeant couldn’t recognize her children.

Sallie Walker: That’s what made her want to write the play.

John Moore: Denver Post photographer Craig Walker followed a Marine taking pictures and notes as he struggled with the aftereffects of PTSD. It’s interesting how brain injuries express themselves in domestic violence, which is also addressed in this play. This Marine talked with Craig Walker about how “fight or flight” is a basic human instinct. But the first thing they teach you when you are a Marine is, “There is no flight.” That is not an option. So even in common domestic situations involving anxiety, such as an argument with your wife, it’s easy to see how a PTSD victim would go straight to “fight.” You don’t rationalize. You fight back, even if it’s the woman you love.

Christine Vitale, who plays Angel Rodriguez, wife of a TBI soldier: We had a panel after  Friday’s show. There were two doctors who worked with vets, a wife whose husband suffers from TBI and a retired staff sergeant who suffers from TBI. We’re here pretending, but these people are living these lives. It really smacks you in the face that this isn’t just a play.

(The conversation then included talk of the doctor character, Jo Fitch, having had a brother who died in Vietnam. The play asserts that TBIs are the Agent Orange of the Iraq-Afghanistan wars.)

Ashley Crockett: She’s an interesting character because she’s a whistle-blower and a research scientist. The character is written to not be at arms length. She’s not as controlled as, say, a military doctor. She is a specialist who has this specific knowledge and is motivated to do something about it. But (the playwright) did not want to have a good guy/bad guy thing going, so she personalized the character of Lt. Col. Banks, and she brought forward the whole idea of the wives, the families and how they are affected by all of this, because it’s so unknown. It’s tough for the families.  Nobody ever thinks about them. So that’s a story that needed to be told. … It’s a sacred charge that we have as actors because we are carrying their stories. It’s bloody awful that people, A) go to war; B) live through this stuff; and C) end up back home completely incapacitated and nobody knows what to do about it.

Jen Lennon: One of the points the playwright kept making to us is that she wanted to deal with memory. Not only individuals’ memory, but memory of war, and the idea that we let it fade away. I think one of the reasons she wanted to include Vietnam in the piece was because she doesn’t want our memories of war to fade away over time.

Sallie Walker: And she wanted to make the comparison between the mishandling of Agent Orange in Vietnam and the mishandling of TBIs today.

Ashley Crockett: I was around (at the time of Vietnam). Sallie and I went to bars and there would be these psycho Vietnam vets sitting around drinking. That’s not part of my daily experience now, but it was. And I forget. We forget.

John Moore: But do you think the play could benefit from a stronger antagonist?

Hossein Forouzandeh, who plays TBI soldier Mano Rodriguez: The author doesn’t want to point fingers at anyone in particular because the Army’s job is to be the Army. To go out and protect the country, and to go to war. It’s not their job to treat these people when they come back. That’s the V.A.’s job. Really everyone is just trying to do their jobs and get by.

Mark Cannon: There are good guys and there are bad guys, and she just chose not to put the bad guys in this show.

Sallie Walker: It’s reflected in the mishandling of the Agent Orange. Have we learned nothing? To me, the fact that there’s a bureaucracy whose vested interest is in denial, denial, denial until they can’t deny it any more: That’s the bad guy sort of amorphosed.

Marisa Hebert, who plays TBI soldier Annie Nichols: The staff sergeant who saw the play on Friday, he told us how many times he had been hit and what happened to him. And he was still like, “I would go back tomorrow.” He loved his job so much. I think you see that in (the character of TBI soldier Kevin Daniels): You see his entire driving force is to get better so that he can go back and do his job. They love what they do so much that they will put themselves in those situations over and over.

Audience member:  Do you remember the movie “Patton”? There’s a part where Patton was moving through the wounded section, and there was this guy who had a nervous breakdown. He was labeled a coward or a weakling by George C. Scott. I wonder how much of that macho mentality still exists?

Mark Cannon: Very much so. If you’re in the infantry, or if you’re a scout, you are not allowed to be a wuss. You don’t have time to be a wuss. With the business of the schedule, if someone was freaking out, you would just leave them back. I can’t speak for today, but three years ago … there was no sympathy.

Audience member: That is the heaviest production I have ever seen portrayed on a stage, and kudos to you all. I would think those parts would be very difficult to play. I am very touched. I have always had such a heart for this subject, but everything I have heard will really stick with me. … I am just very touched.

 

Cast list:

Jason Lythgoe

Dr. Jo Fitch: (University brain-trauma specialist): Ashley Crockett
Marine Lance Corporal Kevin Daniels: Jason Lythgoe
Sue Daniels (Kevin’s mother): Sallie Walker
Army Staff Sgt. Mike Ames: Emory Collinson
Sandy Ames  (Mike’s wife): Jen Lennon
Army Staff Sgt. Mano Rodriguez: Hossein Forouzandeh
Angel Rodriguez (Mano’s wife): Christine Vitale
Lt.  Colonel  Banks (Department of Defense): Mark Cannon
Army Staff Sergeant Annie Nichols: Marisa Hebert
Navy Corpsman Jackson Cantrell: Chris Medina

Director: Tim Muldrew

Performance information:
Where:
FAC Music Room in the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 30 W. Dale St., 719-634-5583 or the fac’s home page

Performance times: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday, closing Sept. 23

Prices: $15

Contact: 719-634-5583 or the fac’s home page

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