On Wednesday night, dozens of U.S. military veterans pinned red poppies to their lapels as they entered the Words of War fundraiser at the Frank Gehry–designed IAC building in New York. Several hundred people attended the event to see actors perform theatrical readings of poetry and prose related to the experience of war to benefit nonprofit organizations supporting comprehensive mental health care for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
One of the recipient organizations, the Headstrong Project, was founded by Zach Iscol, a combat-decorated Marine officer, to bring “cost-free, stigma-free, and bureaucracy-free” mental health care to recent veterans. One of the goals of the project, Iscol says, is to expand the program to benefit veterans in rural areas that fall outside of the reach of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“What the arts can do,” said Iscol, an Iraq veteran of the Battle of Fallujah and now the executive director of the Headstrong Project, “is it can normalize the experience.”
“You realize, I’m not the only one numbed by this experience in combat,” said Iscol. “The hope is by normalizing it through the arts, people understand what they’re suffering from … and that it reduces a barrier to care.”
Actor Jake Gyllenhaal, perhaps best known among the military community for his role in Jarhead, the 2005 film based on the memoir written by U.S. Marine Anthony Swofford, was among the evening’s performers. Gyllenhaal opened his poetry reading saying, “I am just an actor,” and let the words of the poet and WWI veteran Wilfred Owen do the speaking. He read:
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Serving as a backdrop to the theatrical readings were photographs taken by prominent war photographers Ashley Gilbertson, Claire Felicie, Lucian Read, and Johnathan Alpeyrie that were projected onto large video walls.
Iscol took the stage between readings to report that more than 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans report symptoms of PTSD and that the VA estimates 22 veterans commit suicide per day. In response to what he called staggering numbers, the Headstrong Project has brought together leading research scientists and clinicians in PTSD to develop a treatment program and fund a nationwide network of mental-health providers to treat veterans at no charge.
The night also featured a performance of Theater of War, a public health project that uses ancient Greek tragedies as a catalyst for town hall discussions about the invisible wounds of war. Founder and actor Bryan Doerries says their goal is to create “the conditions for open dialogue about very difficult, stigmatized, and taboo subjects like the impact of war on families, suicide, alcohol, and substance abuse.”
For the Words of War benefit, Doerries was joined by actors Joanne Tucker and Jamie Hector (from HBO’s The Wire) in the performance of a scene from Sophocles’ Ajax.
“We’re simply presenting a really dramatic and powerful ancient play and asking [veterans] to reflect upon what they see of themselves in that,” said Doerries. “And I think what I’ve seen is that when individuals see their own private struggles reflected in an ancient story, they immediately know they’re not alone.”
Performances were followed by a “Fund-a-Need” live auction in which audience members pledged money for specific health-care needs.
Bidding opened with a $5,000 pledge for EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing) treatment. Gyllenhaal was the first to commit.
The evening also benefited nonprofit veterans groups Team Rubicon, Student Veterans of America, and Team RWB, which all work to create communities for recent military veterans.
Peter Meijer, a member of the board of directors of Student Veterans of America, spoke to the power of the arts in his own experience as a veteran of the Iraq war.
“Imagining myself as a character within a story,” Meijer said, “[helped me] achieve a sense of removal from the situation that allows clarity.”