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U.S. Soldiers Take a Dramatic Tour of Duty

  • Adam Allington

Meet Bravo Company. Bravo is the United States Army's touring theater ensemble. The actors in this company are real soldiers who've passed auditions and been granted leave from their regular duties for a 4-month assignment traveling around the world performing for both troops and civilians.

The Roadside Theater is not a typical community theater... in fact, it's not even beside a road. It's at the Patton Barracks on the grounds of the United States Army base in Heidelberg.

What? Hansen's dead?! But I just saw him yesterday.
He died last night.
No, he was all right… he didn't have any arms or legs, but he was all right.
Gately, he died last night!

Tonight's feature is a two-act play by James McClure called "Private Wars"...the title being a word play that suggests both military rank and the idea of personal space. The audience is a mixture of soldiers, military family and Americans living in Germany. Like many in the theater, these actors hold other jobs.

Drill Sergeant Robert Isom is with Echo Company, 3rd of the 323rd Infantry Regiment out of Fort Jackson, South Carolina. Sergeant Michael Malizia serves with Charlie Battery 133 out of Bamberg, Germany and is a 13-Mike, multiple launch rocket-system crew member. The third cast member is Eric Bragg, a 92-Alpha Battalion Supply Sergeant with the 114th out of Fort Dietrich, Maryland.

"Private Wars" tells the story of three Vietnam War Veterans recovering in a hospital from severe physical and mental injuries. Throughout the production, the characters are faced with this dilemma.

Look, Gately, for instance, suppose I just can't cope with the world when they let me out of here.
You can get out of here any time you want.
I know that…

Sergeant Malizia, who plays Natwick, says the fact that these vets can leave the dreaded hospital, but choose not to, reflects the conflicts that we all face as we struggle to overcome our own personal and private fears. "I joined the army late in life, I was 32," he recalls. "I remember that summer as being a very emotional time where I just thought this was absolutely not for me at all... I actually thought I was hallucinating. [For] My character, 'Natwick,' [enlisting] definitely was a last ditch effort. He couldn't function in the real world in spite of wanting to fit in, and then decided to join the army. And he himself says 'Everybody was surprised the army took me, including me' and that's how I felt."

All my life, I've known I was going to fail. My mother had this brilliant career plan for me. Everyone was surprised the army took me… including me.

It isn't immediately apparent what the three soldiers are suffering from… they don't talk about their injuries and there is only passing reference to Vietnam. In fact, most of the dialog is actually kind of funny…

Hey, be honest, c'mon… you ever ask yourself what's the secret to my incredible sexual power over women?
Why the nurses just can't resist me?
The nurses hate you, Silvio!
That's what they want you to believe.
Well, they've got me believing it.

Still, by the second act, it becomes clear that we -- the audience -- have been set up. We've laughed, we've become emotionally invested in the characters and then we finally, slowly, see how the men are suffering and why they can't leave the hospital. All of a sudden we're reminded of the very real fact that when soldiers go to war, they sometimes come back horribly disfigured and injured.

Drill Sergeant Isom remembers one particular visit to Walter Reed Army Hospital that put this grave reality in perspective. "When I first walked into [Walter Reed] hospital there was a gentleman, I'll never know his name or who he was but he was walking down the hall and he was with his doctor and evidently he had lost a leg, and the doctor was sharing with him that he would have to get used to this prosthetic leg. They were just walking down the hall having this conversation, but for me, I began just thinking how this soldier must have felt..."

After 3 months of touring through bases and hospitals around Europe, Heidelberg was Bravo's last stop before the actors returned to the States, back to their jobs as sergeants in the U.S. Army. It's been a good tour, the men say. Eric Bragg reflects that it's been a chance for them to grow as actors and also to support their comrades-in-arms through the arts. "You don't look at a soldier as being an artistic creature," he says. "But we're drawn from the same country that everyone else lives in. We just have a different job to do, so it's nice to have an outlet like this."

I heard you're leaving soon.
Yeah, that's right. Tomorrow.

For Robert Isom, the stage is like a mirror. "It allows that soldier to see himself," he explains, "or that person to see themself. So I think the [play is] letting them know that it's ok, it's ok to laugh, it's ok to cry, we all have private issues… but there is hope."

I gotta go pack, I'll see you guys later.