Actors, veterans share stories in ‘See Me for Who I Am’

The Northwoods River News
By David Chrisinger
22 Nov 17

By Kayla Breese

Nicolet Area Technical College hosted a unique theatrical offering last week as the South Carolina theatre company Boots on the Ground performed its adaptation of “See Me for Who I Am” Nov. 7 alongside Northwoods veterans and their loved ones.

“See Me for Who I am,” a book about soldiers’ experiences in war, was edited by Rhinelander native David Chrisinger and published in February 2016. The theatre company approached Chrisinger about the production. He made the connections to find facilities that could host it and helped find local veterans and families willing to share their stories.

See Me for Who I Am River News Article

Photo Credit: Kayla Breese/River News

So far, Boots on the Ground has performed “See Me for Who I Am” at the University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point, Rhinelander High School and Nicolet Area Technical College.

The large crowd at the Nicolet performance sat spellbound during the emotional performance.

“We were told by a number of teachers today that they’ve never seen 800 high school students sit there so captivated and not on their phones and not talking and really focusing and interacting,” Chrisinger said. The simple act of sitting and listening to these stories is very important, he added.

“I think the most important thing that a community can do to really welcome home their military veterans is to sit and listen without any preconceptions or any stereotypes and really be witness to the stories,” he said, adding that it is particularly special that local veterans have stood up to speak in each community where the adaptation has been performed.

The Boots on the Ground troupe members said they were honored to bring the veterans’ stories to life.

“I think one of the most interesting things I found in the process of all of this is just not so much the wartorn stories – which those have lots of weight on their own – but the little stories I guess that a lot of veterans tell about,” said actor Duncan Overby.

As an example, he mentioned talking to a female veteran about the girls’ nights she experienced on base. He also said he heard a number of food-related stories that offered him insight into military life.

Overby said the experience of reading the stories and talking to veterans has been very satisfying for the troupe.

“One of the most rewarding things about this particular project is the fact that yes, you find something in several of these stories that rings true for yourself, and I don’t mean it like ‘yes, that makes sense’ I mean that there’s something in the stories that you’ve experienced on some mental or emotional level,” he said, adding that it is more important now than ever that these stories are shared and told.

“I think that in general with communities, not even veterans but people with mental health issues or racial issues or sexist issues or any other kind of polarizing problems that we have, I think the reason things are polarized is due to the fact that we see different people, everyone sees differences and then doesn’t really know how to react to them and so thus because they’re scared of that reaction they don’t want to talk about it and I think that’s where it all begins,” he explained

J.P. McLaurin, core artistic director of Boots on the Ground, has been recording each production and taking notes. He is mulling over ways to refine the performance as it moves from location to location.

“We’re continually wanting to develop this piece so I’m taking a lot of notes mentally about, OK when we go back to South Carolina or continue pursuing this kind of format, what works, what doesn’t work. So here is a good chance to try things out and see what’s a format that’s not going to be self-serving but serving the community and serving some of these people that haven’t gotten to talk openly about their experiences,” he explained.

Performance

The troupe opened its Nicolet performance with a passionate narrative explaining that veterans aren’t statistics, they all have different stories and want to be heard.

Overby read a story about a veteran’s journey from being an angry teen burning off energy in football to joining the military, struggling with coming back from a war and trying to adjust to civilian life.

Following this reading, Marine veteran Johann Carstensen stepped up to the mic and shared his experience in Jordan.

He talked about the “moon dust” and described taking a normal step and producing a dust cloud as tall as himself. After training, troops would be covered head to foot in dust and someone else would have to brush them off, he shared.

The Jordanians training with them laid down gravel to try and minimize the dust, but it didn’t help, he added.

Initially, Carstensen said he had only brief contact with the Jordanians, but that changed when he spent six hours in a vehicle with one of them and learned how similar they are to Americans in terms of love for family, dedication to the military and even excitement over certain television shows.

He also noted how strict life was for the Jordanians. If a Jordanian was homeless they joined the military to get three meals a day and some shelter, he said.

The next person to share his story was Navy veteran Zachariah Farris. Farris said he enlisted out of high school, transitioning from “flipping burgers” as he put it, to doing hard work in the military.

He worked for several years, making his way up the ranks until he became a leader responsible for others. Through this experience, Farris said he gained confidence but many questions nagged at him.

He was shocked when he saw how much fuel one ship used for training and questioned how much fuel all the ships in the fleet use. He also pondered the division of men and what being a patriot really means.

While away in the Navy, family issues arose and Farris realized how much he missed his relatives.

Marsha Mattek was the next person to speak. She talked about her beloved late son, John Mattek Jr.

John Mattek Jr. had a strong sense of duty and an equally strong sense of compassion for others he showed through countless actions, she said.

Even after his death, Marsha Mattek said she is learning about the impact her son had on others, including a pregnant woman who reached out to him in despair. The woman told Marsha Mattek that her son drove to Michigan to talk to her and because of that conversation she and her child are still alive.

Marsha Mattek agreed with the others that it is important to tell veterans stories, even if the topic can make people feel uneasy.

“Just like with anything, if you want to find a solution or be able to help, you’ve got to ask, you’ve got to be willing to open up to those of us who have been through it, whether it be a loss or you be the veteran,” she said.

Up next was Marsha Mattek’s daughter, Katie Devore. Devore shared more stories of her brother’s compassion. There was a boy in school who always ate lunch alone. John Mattek sat with him every day until others started joining in, she shared.

Devore also told the audience about driving with the family to the airport when her brother was deployed. Before boarding the plane, she said John looked back at them and smiled. Devore feared that would be the last time she would see her brother and it was.

Devore said she likes to repeat a phrase her brother liked: “It’s ‘volunteer,’ not ‘volun-told.'”

Mikayla Goetz, core artistic director and actress with Boots on the Ground, took the stage to read “Earning a Seat at the Table,” the story of a female veteran who was dismissed, overlooked and felt like a burden.

The woman kept up with her male counterparts, didn’t complain, and yet her comrades acted like she needed special treatment.

After the convoy was bombed, one of her fellow soldiers approached her to tell her that she was the first female he had served with and the bombing was the first he’d experienced.

As a result, he concluded that she was “bad juju.”

After she came home, she sought help from a female doctor to deal with the adjustment. She explained how she was feeling and asked if she might have Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Her doctor replied, “PTSD is only seen in men who have seen combat.” The veteran was stunned and doubted her self-worth.

She eventually married a veteran who is proud of her and values her time in the service.

Goetz said she chose to perform “Earning a Seat at the Table,” because she could relate to the woman’s story, even though she isn’t in the service.

“When I read it, sadly I think many women can identify with that story feeling they aren’t being taken seriously in any kind of professional environment and I know I have personally dealt with that in my life and, as we all should be, I’m an advocate against it,” she said. “And so I love reading that story because suddenly that woman that wrote that, she’s Wonder Woman, I’m Wonder Woman, we’re all Wonder Woman and I think more stories like that have to be told.”

Brett Foley, a Marine veteran and close friend of Chrisinger, discussed his adjustment to civilian life.

He told a story about running a marathon with Chrisinger and how the experience helped him heal.

Prior to and on the day of the race, Foley said he was nervous and used the skills he learned in the military to make sure he was ready, such as going over lists and supplies.

The first several miles of the race he was feeling good, but as the race continued the wear and tear started taking its toll.

Aching, Foley said he started to doubt himself and his ability to complete the race.

Halfway through he was ready for it to be over, but Chrisinger was right there egging him on, carrying on conversations.

Toward the last 10 miles, he was exhausted, but his family and friends still cheered him on, reminding him why he was running. He said he thought of those who couldn’t do the things he was doing and that ignited a spark that gave him the extra energy to finish the race with minutes to spare. He completed the 50-mile race in about 11 hours and felt exhilarated, he shared.

His wife, Whitney, took the stage next, sharing what it’s like to be the spouse of a veteran readjusting to civilian life.

It was “heart-wrenching” to see her husband struggling to find a purpose again, she said, adding that she started running with her husband as he trained for the marathon and it grew into them having a new common interest.

The race brought light and life back into the family and things got better, she said.

Following the performance, Boots on the Ground members said they plan to continue performing this piece across the nation.

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