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Greek classic resonates at Camp Pendleton

Combat veterans, and their loved ones, say the themes of Sophocles' 2,500-year-old play are painfully familiar. It was staged as part of the Pentagon-sponsored Theater of War project.

July 25, 2010|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Camp Pendleton — The reading of Sophocles' classic drama "Ajax" was polished and powerful.

But the most dramatic parts of the Thursday-night performance may have been unscripted comments by Marines, Marine spouses and a Navy chaplain.

Written about 2,500 years ago, "Ajax" explores the torment of a Greek warrior returning from combat with thoughts of rage, revenge and suicide. His family and fellow soldiers struggle with his anger and feelings of having been dishonored and abandoned.

Comments from a panel and the audience after the production, part of the Pentagon-sponsored "Theater of War" project, showed anew that the aftereffects of war have changed little over the centuries.

Christina Whittemore said her husband, a helicopter crew chief deployed in Afghanistan, suffered nightmares and post-traumatic stress when he returned from Iraq. Like Ajax, he could not leave the horrors of war on the battlefield, she said.

"There have been times he's jumped out of bed and sworn an Iraqi had just left the room," she said.

Bri, who preferred to use only her first name, said her husband has been deployed 33 of the last 50 months. Each time he returns, his personality has changed, she said.

"He's fine now, but it's been a rough couple of years," she said.

Mary-Margaret Marshall, whose husband is a counterintelligence officer, said she could identify with Ajax's wife, Tecmessa, in her desire to shield their children from her husband's moods.

"It's not been easy; it's been rough," said Marshall, whose husband is in Afghanistan. "I have pictures of my husband with our children. That person no longer exists."

Ellen Dunford, wife of Lt. Gen. Joseph Dunford, commander of the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, said the character Athena seemed to symbolize the depression and confusion that can afflict returning troops. Athena, goddess of war, leads Ajax to take his rage out on farm animals. "She muddled his mind," she said.

Sgt. Oscar Rauda, a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan, said he knew what it was like to return from war and be unable to adjust to family life. Among other agonies, he remembered the young Marine who died in his arms.

He treated his wife badly and allowed underage Marines to drink, leading to time in the brig and a reduction in rank, Rauda said. Marines who should have helped him, he said, turned their backs on him — a theme straight from the play, as Ajax feels he has been cheated by his superiors.

"I lost my rank; I lost my soul," Rauda said. "I feel like Ajax."

After Ajax commits suicide, falling on his enemy's sword, characters argue about whether he should be given a respectful funeral or scorned for having done something unmanly.

An infantry company commander and a chaplain said they have heard discussions like that. "We're still struggling with how much difference there is between suicide and a combat death," said Navy Capt. Ollis Mozon, base chaplain for Camp Pendleton.

Bryan Doerries, director and founder of the Theater of War project, said Marines tend to be his best audiences, possibly because of their intense focus on the "core values" of honor, courage and commitment.

Under a $3.7-million contract with the Pentagon, Doerries has brought his productions to dozens of U.S. military bases and other locations including the Pentagon, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, a shelter for homeless veterans, the Naval War College and various conferences.

The goal of the project is to show troops and their families that their problems are universal and to break down the stigma associated with seeking help.

Too many Marines still refuse to seek help, the panel agreed. Whittemore said she finally told her husband that he needed help.

"He said, 'I can't,' and a tear came down his face," she said.

Retired Marine Lt. Col. Jay Kopelman, an Iraq veteran and now executive director of the nonprofit organization Freedom Is Not Free, said it bears remembering that Sophocles was both a playwright and a general and that his audience consisted almost exclusively of combat veterans.

"He was issuing his 'commander's guide' to his troops," Kopelman said. "He was telling them: 'Don't let this happen to you, don't let this happen to the men in your command.' "

tony.perry@latimes.com

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