Female veterans find stage might
Times Union, Albany, N.Y.
ALBANY, N.Y. — For years, nothing registered.
Sgt. 1st Class Penny McInnis retired from the Army in 1995 after 20 years in uniform. She tried to tell others that a male boss sexually assaulted her on the job, but felt no one listened. She became upset, but was unable to cry.
Six months ago, McInnis agreed to try expressive arts therapy. She joined the theater production "On Her Shoulders." She and eight other female veterans shared their military experiences with high school actresses from the Capital Region. The students told the women's stories of rape, wartime stress and trauma to two sold-out audiences in Albany.
Watching the play liberated and emboldened McInnis in ways she's still processing. The Colonie veteran recently submitted a new disability claim stemming from sexual trauma she said occurred prior to her deployment for Desert Storm in 1990. She's now undergoing music therapy at the Albany Stratton VA Medical Center, learning photography and using social media to work on behalf of all wounded veterans.
"To me, something has happened," McInnis said recently at the VA. "The play started it, and something snowballed. I feel like I can advocate now."
McInnis, 57, is not the only vet who has shed her old skin since the May production. The multimedia event had such a powerful impact on participants that they have regrouped for encore performances in the VA Saturday and the Steamer No. 10 Theater on Veterans Day.
Many of the players recently reunited at a practice workshop in the VA. Suzanne Rancourt of Hadley, another veteran featured in the play, secured funding for the reunion through Poets & Writers. The teens are excited to perform the shows again.
"I'm definitely nervous about the one at the VA," said Anna Dempf, a junior at Bethlehem High School. "We don't want to mess up, and we don't know what to expect."
The 90-minute production created dialogue between veterans and civilians, adults and teens, said Noelle Gentile, 35, a community theater artist from Albany who directed "On Her Shoulders." Local playwright Amelia Whalen scripted the play. The Workforce Development Institute presented it.
"The play was very emotional for people," Gentile said. "Seeing their stories publicly told for the first time caused a lot of movement for women."
Rancourt worked as a photojournalist and in a field hospital while in the military. She says she is still working through sexual trauma she suffered while in the service.
"My message to other vets is don't wait another lifetime to deal with your trauma," Rancourt said.
The students who interviewed the vets and told their sometimes disturbing stories in vignettes and videos said they, too, took a lot from the experience. "I think it gave me a better appreciation for people who served in the military," said Ejaniia Clayton, 17, of Albany.
Rozara Sanders, 15, of Bethlehem, said the Nov. 11 performance "will be one of the first times I will honestly be thinking about veterans on Veterans Day, rather than it just being a day off from school."
McInnis worked her way up from Army postal clerk to intelligence expert. She raised two children as a single Army mother. In "On Her Shoulders," she traded the theater of war in her mind for a theater and stage.
She said she cried a river at the May show, and now feels that many people are listening to her and her story of betrayal. "I was very angry, but I learned to let it go," McInnis said. "I was able to express it, so I didn't hold onto it anymore."