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Keeler: Giving voice to female service vets

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Reading often about the mental-health needs of combat veterans, Mary Ragan and others at the Psychotherapy & Spirituality Institute in Manhattan began wondering how to help.

It seemed that the best way for veterans to get counseling was to go to a Vet Center in one of the five boroughs, community-based services created by Congress under the Department of Veterans Affairs to handle the readjustment needs of returning vets. So what could the institute -- an interdisciplinary, not-for-profit pastoral counseling center -- do?

"Beverly Coyle, a friend of mine, and I started talking about the role of the arts in healing," Ragan recalled. "And we decided, let's focus on women, because women are 15 percent of the military, they are underrepresented in all forms of media, they are largely invisible."

So, three years ago, Ragan, a therapist, and Coyle, a novelist and playwright who taught literature at Vassar College, began interviewing female veterans. At first, it wasn't easy to find interview subjects. But they began attending an ongoing veteran-civilian dialogue hosted by a New York not-for-profit group, Intersections International. Little by little, they reached women willing to tell their stories, mostly in Skype and phone interviews.

Coyle found ways to craft their words into monologues, and a veteran director, Steven Ditmyer, shaped them dramatically. The result is "In Our Own Voice," a theatrical exploration of what life is like for women serving the nation.

This Friday evening, in the spectacular sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset -- a soaring space that reminds Ditmyer of London's Globe Theatre -- actresses will deliver those monologues. And Ragan will lead a talk-back -- helped by veterans Wendy McClinton and Stephanie Otero -- to encourage the audience, especially any female veterans, to share their reactions.

"The arc of the monologues was: Why did you join, what was your experience while there, and what has your re-entry been like?" Ragan said.

"Their reasons for enlisting were all over the place," Coyle said. "One of the women just marched in and said, 'What's the hardest thing a woman can do in the Army?' One woman joined on a bet."

Those interviews were the raw material for this "play in monologues," which originated with two actresses and lasted 15 minutes, but has now grown to four actresses and runs about 50 minutes. The words in the script are the words of the women vets. "Sometimes it's a composite, sometimes a sustained monologue from a specific individual," Coyle said.

The success of the piece is in its variety -- alternating between a long speech by one actress and more staccato, shorter monologues by several. "It has an energy and a life to it," Ditmyer said. "They can be funny stories; they can be horrific stories."

One of the tough themes is what is too often happening to women at the hands of their male colleagues: rape. "The monologues take a hard look at military sexual trauma, which is epidemic among women in the military," Ragan said. It doesn't dominate the evening, but it's undeniably there.

In previous performances, the monologues have been excellent catalysts. "It's very powerful," Ragan said. "It stimulates a lot of conversation."

Shelter Rock is a favorite venue for peace activists, but this is not specifically an anti-war evening. "We just wanted to hear what they have to say," Coyle said. "We have been transformed by it. It's a play, not a polemic."

For all that women have endured in our nation's name, this seems the least we can do: Listen intensely to their words.

Bob Keeler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.



"In Our Own Voice: Women Veterans Tell Their Stories" will be performed on Friday, March 30, at 7:30 p.m. at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, 48 Shelter Rock Rd., Manhasset. An optional donation is requested. 516-627-6560.


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