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Tragedy of ancient warrior spurs suicide discussion

CAMP ZAMA, Japan — Derrick Trotter looked out into the audience and was struck by a familiar feeling: “They’re going to think I’m crazy.”

He brushed it off.

He can do that now.

But there was a time that same thought stopped him from seeking mental health counseling. He had just returned from his first tour in Iraq six years ago when “the change” occurred — the result of a horrific mission to retrieve 12 dead Iraqi fighters in the desert heat.

“There were many missions like that,” the 28-year-old told the auditorium full of soldiers who were at Camp Zama for a theatrical reading Thursday of the Greek tragedy “Ajax,” the story of a soldier so troubled by the horrors of combat that he killed himself.

“Thoughts of suicide became an everyday thing,” said the former Marine, who is now in the Army Reserves.

Limbs separated from bodies, liquefied flesh — “Seeing that isn’t natural,” he said.

Earlier during that deployment, a sister unit lost nine of its 24 Marines in one day.

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“Mother’s Day 2006. It was tough.” Trotter said. “It just seemed like someone was dying every day.”

He finally decided to get help when, while visiting his family, he awoke from a night terror with his hands clenched around his nephew’s throat.

“What I want people to know is that you’re not by yourself,” Trotter told the audience. “Don’t feel weird. It’s OK to hurt.”

He shared his story as part of a four-person panel after the reading of Ajax by a group called Theater of War, an acting troupe that has performed more than 200 times at military bases around the world.

Camp Zama brought in the acting troupe to take part in suicide prevention stand-down day. It was one of many suicide prevention programs happening at Army bases worldwide as the service struggles with a growing suicide problem — 283 confirmed or suspected suicides so far this year.

“We call ourselves a public health organization,” Theater of War founder Bryan Doerries said.

Doerries and the four professional actors who read “Ajax” wore no costumes. There was no stage lighting, no set, no props. But the drama was high as they read four scenes from the ancient play by Sophocles, an elected general in the Greek army.

Doerries got the idea for Theater of War in 2006 and 2007 — some of the bloodiest years for U.S. forces in Iraq.

“I was reading the news, and the headlines sounded like they could be ripped from the plays of Sophocles, and I started making the connection between ancient war stories and modern warfare,” he told Stars and Stripes.

His goal, he said, was to “unlock something in the plays” that would resonate with modern warriors and help them “speak the unspeakable.”

Doerries said two soldiers approached him after the first reading on Thursday, saying it had motivated them to plan to go into therapy.

“It happens everywhere,” he said. “It became clear pretty quickly after starting this that I had stumbled onto a public health awareness tool.”

He asked four questions to prompt the audience to think about and comment on what the story of Ajax means and why it was written and originally performed before an amphitheater of 17,000 citizen soldiers.

“Pain shared is pain divided,” one soldier commented after Doerries asked them to respond to a line from Ajax’s wife as she pleaded with his troops to help her delusional and suicidal husband. A great hero of the Trojan war, Ajax suffered a psychotic breakdown provoked, in part, by a devastating public embarrassment.

Questions about how survivor’s guilt differs in cases of suicide vs. combat deaths and whether those who kill themselves deserve military honors also evoked frank comments from soldiers, whose attendance was compulsory.

One noncommissioned officer said the Army should pay tribute to those who choose to commit suicide.

“As we evolve and start to learn more about the horrors of war, we’re just beginning to understand this,” he said. “We have to honor all that that soldier did for their country.”

Doerries said Theater of War has reached 40,000 troops but that his efforts have “only scratched the surface,” considering the rising tide of military suicides.

The statistics are heartbreaking, he said.

Since 2001, the Army has recorded 1,334 suicides, according to Defense Department records. Thirty-eight soldiers are suspected of killing themselves in July 2012, up from 24 in June.

Broken relationships and struggles with eternal questions such as “Why do bad things happen to good people and the wicked get away with it?” are at the heart of the military’s suicide problem, said Camp Zama Chaplain (Col.) Robert Nay, who served as one of the panel members at the workshop.

“It’s not the wars,” he said.

Most people who kill themselves, “they aren’t really wanting to die,” said fellow panelist Capt. Peter J. Dell, a behavioral counselor at the base. “They’re just struggling with how to live.”

Programs like Theater of War are especially important as more servicemembers transition back into civilian life after more than a decade of war, Doerries said. The mental and emotional scars of battle can never be erased from a veteran’s mind, but the stigma society attaches to psychological injury can, he said.

“I think we can play a huge role in helping create a sense of community and shared experience,” Doerries said. “I think that our culture in general has lost touch with that.”

Despite the gravity of the subject at hand, Doerries kept the audience smiling in between the serious questions and responses.

“Whether there are Ajaxes in this room depends on what happens after you all leave. You’re not alone,” Doerries said. “I know this was compulsory but I hope it was better than an AFN commercial or a PowerPoint.”

For more information on Theater of War go to www.outsidethewirellc.com.

reedc@pstripes.osd.mil

 

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