Last week, the Army released statistics showing that 32 soldiers committed suicide in June, the highest number in a single month since the Vietnam era. The news doesnt come as a surprise to Paula Caplan.
For the last several years, Caplan, a psychologist and playwright, has been researching veterans and the treatment they receive upon returning home from service. Her play ‘WAR & THERAPY,’ making its debut at Fringe, stems from this work.
In 2004, Caplan wrote an op-ed piece in the Washington Post calling for the military to devote greater psychological resources to troops, both while deployed and once back home. The response she received from veterans moved her to write ‘WAR & THERAPY.’ The play tells the story of a female soldier who returns home haunted by her memories of war, but is unable to find relief. Caplan drew heavily upon the story of Michelle Dillow, a soldier she met over the course of her research.
Upon returning from Iraq in 2006, Dillow struggled to share her experiences of war. She didnt want to talk about it with her friends and family. I feel its easier telling a stranger than people youre closest to, she says. You dont want to hurt them.
She didnt especially feel the need to see a therapist, but she thought that it might be a good idea, just in case. She saw a counselor a few times, but didnt find it particularly helpful.
Its an experience thats not unique. The treatments veterans receive following war are frequently unhelpful, according to Caplan. She has yet to see a veteran helped by psychotropic drugs. Giving a veteran anti-depressants is like putting a cast on someones arm when what theyve got is a broken leg, she says.
Labeling veterans mental condition is also unhelpful. Since Vietnam, weve been saying that people have post-traumatic stress disorder, Caplan says. Thats a mental illness. Were pathologizing their experience. Id like to know what a healthy response to war would be.
Though veterans need to share their war experiences with someone, a therapisteven if they say all the right thingsis inherently not the best person, contends Caplan.
Even if a therapist says to you, youre not crazy, or youre being too hard on yourself, in some really important ways it means more if a member of the community says it, she says. Its not their job to do that. Theyre not getting paid to say that. If someone other than a therapist says that, a connection is formed. You break down the walls and begin the process of healing.
After she returned from Iraq, Dillow spoke about her experiences to a few different college classes. The first time I didnt get a lot of response, she says. I shadowed my experience. I didnt talk a lot about what I really went through. But then I decided it was more important for people to know the truth, what was really going on.
Despite constant reports from the frontlines, most civilians are unaware of the realities of war. I remember the date was Dec. 15, 2005, and we were in the chow hall watching the news, Dillow says. It was election time and cars were parked on the highway going into Baghdad. People were walking into town because cars couldnt get through. On the news they were reporting that there was no violence. Well, that was kind of true. We found a 500 lb. bomb that day in a refrigerator. The news told the public that nothing bad happened, when something really bad could have happened.
Dillow was struggling after Iraq. In addition to having a hard time talking to her friends and family, and meeting with a counselor without success, she wasnt able to sleep due to nightmares.
Caplan was inspired by Dillows second experience in front of a college class. She talked about how soldiers are told theyre supposed to be tough, focused, and without fear, Caplan says. She wasnt able to do that, and she felt she hadnt measured up. A student whom she never met before told her she was being too hard on herself. She went home that night and she slept for the first time.
Though Caplan has spoken to many veterans throughout her research, Dillows story especially resonated with her. I was writing an article for Tikkun, and I found I was quoting from her story a lot, Caplan says. The magazine story felt more like a play.
Dillow had some reservations when Caplan first approached her about the play. At first I wasnt comfortable with it, she said. I asked her to change my name. But as time went on, I felt more comfortable about it.
Dillow is presently working full time in the National Guard and preparing for her second deploymentthis time, to Afghanistan. Shes finding the emotional support that she needs among other members of her company.
Pretty much everyone heres been deployed, she says. We talk about it in classes and its refreshing to know that weve all been through some really bad stuff but weve all survived. For a while there I was uncertain if I was going to be able to fulfill the goal I have of 20 years of service. But for the last year the military has been really good to me.
Artist: Robert Shetterly
WAR & THERAPY appears tomorrow, July 20, and July 22-25 at the Bedroom at Fort Fringe. Call for times: (866) 811-4111. $15.