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Struggles back home come into focus for veterans

Special to the Union Leader

April 03. 2013 8:02PM
Retired Army Sgt. Jon Worrall and his daughter, Krista, help recovering vets at their family's private camp for wounded warriors in Pittsburg. (BARBARA TAORMINA PHOTO)

STRATHAM - Veterans shared some of their battle stories with Stratham residents at Wiggins Memorial Library recently but they weren't talking about Baghdad, Fallujah, Kabul or Kandahar.

They were talking about some of their struggles back home in New Hampshire as they face a long and slow recoveries from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder, increasingly known by their acronyms, TBI and PTSD, respectively.

The Artists' Collaborative Theatre of New England, ACT ONE, a Seacoast arts and education organization, has been rehearsing for the Portsmouth premiere of "Make Sure It's Me," former television news-producer-turned-novelist Kate Wenner's play about TBI.

The play opens on June 1 at Portsmouth's West End Studio Theatre.

As part of the project, ACT ONE has launched a library tour to present short scenes from the play and to generate a series of community discussions between military service members and civilians about TBI and PTSD.

"Traumatic brain injury and post traumatic stress are the signature wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan," said ACT ONE associate director Leslie Pasternack, who added that three factors distinguish TBI from other combat injuries.

"It's invisible, the symptoms may be delayed and the people who are injured are the last ones to ask for help," she said.

Pasternack led several scenes from "Make Sure It's Me" with some help from retired Army Sgt. Conan Marchi of Kittery, Maine, who was shot by a sniper while on patrol in Iraq, and Jenny Freeman, a brain injury specialist at the Krempels Center in Portsmouth.

In one scene, Marchi plays a veteran suffering from memory loss, mood swings and anger and Pasternack portrays his frightened wife groping to understand what's gone wrong.

The scene hit home with Krista Worrall, 18, who remembered her dad, retired Army Sgt. Jon "Chief" Worrall had bouts of anger while he was recovering from a roadside blast that left him severely injured.

And it resonated with Exeter resident Rob Baker, a retired army staff sergeant who looked unstoppable as he stood listening to the reading.

"The military taught me how to be invincible but it didn't teach me how to live with the effects of war," said Baker who copes with a range of TBI and PTSD symptoms like difficulty concentrating and a hyper vigilance that has kept him awake for 40 hours at a stretch.

"I have angry outbusts and my mother-in-law asks me if I can control it," he said. "I can't."

The small crowd that turned out for the reading and discussion listened intently as the veterans described their experiences. Pasternack said one of the goals of the play and the library discussions was to bridge the divide between military and civilian families .

"We wanted to somehow serve those who have served for us," she said.

Although Worrall and Baker acknowledged that a better understanding about TBI and PTSD would help vets, they added it shouldn't dominate people's ideas and perceptions.

"I got blown up and I'm messed up," said Worrall who walks with the help of a cane and leg braces. "But don't define me as someone with PTSD or TBI or as disabled."

Worrall has found his own solution for recovering from combat. He turned his retirement home in Pittsburg into Wounded Warriors @ 45 North, a private camp where vets can stay for free and fish, hunt and just relax in the company of other vets who understand how they feel.

"We do more good up there than 100 counseling sessions," he said.

Baker gives his wife credit for understanding what he's faced since coming home.

Like Worrall, he prefers to focus on other people, like Kayleb Holmes, the 10-year-old son of his friend Jeremiah Holmes who was the first New Hampshire guardsmen to die in Iraq when a the truck he was driving was struck by a homemade bomb on March 29, 2004.

Some who had come to the library to listen thanked Marchi, Baker, Worrall and other veterans who were in the audience for helping them understand a little more about the issues surrounding TBI and PTSD.

But Al Porsche, a recently retired veterans' counselor who has seen a lot of vets struggling to overcome combat injuries, said the real consequence of war isn't what happens to your body.

"The trauma of combat is what happens to the spirit," said Porsche, adding that people shouldn't assume that a combat injury happens to an individual person.

"I think it's an injury to the entire society," he said.

TBI discussions

The Artists Collaborative Theatre of New England will present three discussion groups on traumatic brain injury in April at the following libraries:

Manchester City Library: April 4, 6:30 p.m.

Nashua Public Library: April 18, 7 p.m.

Lane Memorial Library, Hampton: April 23, 6 30 p.m.

'Make Sure It's Me'

The West End Studios Theatre will stage 13 performances of "Make Sure It's Me."

Where: 959 Islington St., Portsmouth

When: June 1, 2, 7, 8, 9, 21, 22 and 23.

Performance times: Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 2 and 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 and 7:30 p.m.

Admission: $20, $18 (seniors) and $15 (veterans)

Pittsburg Manchester Photo Feature Veterans

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