Veterans Misperceived by Howard Freedlander
This article first appeared in The Spy on October 10, 2017.
This is a story about a questionable narrative about veterans’ mental health in our modern-day America, told in an unusual 70-minute musical drama. The impact is powerful. The message is mind-changing.
Jaymes Poling, who spent three tours as part of the elite 82nd Airborne Division, returned to his country having to cope with public perceptions that he and his fellow veterans were damaged goods suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, better known by its ubiquitous acronym, PTSD. He was 17 when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. He retired as a 26-year-old staff sergeant.
When Poling returned home, seeking help from the Veterans Administration (VA) to adapt to civilian life after serving three separate years as an infantryman in Afghanistan, he immediately received a diagnosis as a victim of PTSD. Medications followed as dispensed by the well-meaning but misdirected VA.
Two fortuitous things happened to Poling: he met a woman in Cleveland and decided to return to school, and he crossed paths with Dominick Farinacci, a world-class trumpeter and music composer. Along the way, Poling decided that PTSD was misapplied in his case. Instead, he had a more positive self-diagnosis: post-traumatic growth.
Collaborating with Farinacci on an autobiographical music drama, Poling realized that veterans not just of his era but throughout history bring special skills to the civilian world. They had learned about leadership, responsibility for themselves and their fellow soldiers and compassion for the men and women with whom they served in combat.
Through the “Modern Warrior Live, which will come to the Avalon in Easton on Saturday, Nov. 18, Farinacci and Poling hope not only to change perceptions about veterans but develop a connection to the civilian world by telling a dramatic story, backed by gripping music. Perhaps, just perhaps, the public will view veterans as having special talents; the “goods” they carry are in their hearts and minds first-rate value and deserve respect.
To better understand the unusual performance, with my admittedly favorable opinion of veterans and the life-threatening experiences they encountered in combat, I spoke with Poling and Farinacci after talking with Richard Marks and Al Sikes–who not only are financial supporters of the Avalon performance but also two gentlemen known as superb volunteers and leaders in the community.
Farinacci said that during his collaboration with Jaymes Poling he saw “the power of music to build bridges, to develop a pathway to empathy, to change perceptions and create a dialogue between the military and civilians.” He repeatedly characterized poling as “authentic.”
During the production of the show, Poling said, “Sometimes the music didn’t feel right. I had to reevaluate times of my life. I had to sort out my feelings. It was not the fault of the music. The artistic musical interactions helped me hone my thoughts.”
As he discussed his life in combat and on civilian turf, Poling said he was careful. “I don’t want to tell stories that don’t belong to me,” he said. While he mentioned the name of a friend and fellow soldier killed in battle, he had checked with the friend’s mother beforehand.
Both Farinacci and Poling agreed that the message of healing and post-traumatic growth had universal implications. It applies to personal tragedy. Poling pointed to people dealing with cancer. “Why assign labels to the survivors? They have issues that provide them with a different filter on life—and a viewpoint that says ‘root for me,’ Poling said.
In summing up his appraisal of “Modern Warrior Live,” Farinacci said, “It was a 100 percent creative development. It stayed true to Jaymes’ story, with magical moments. There is absolutely no substitute for a person who went through it (war), Jaymes allows us to connect to veterans, to find out ‘what did you do?’’ His voice is authentic.”
By the time that the show comes to Easton, it will have played in New York City and Chicago.
Echoing the sentiment expressed by Poling and a videotaped cameo appearance by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Richard Marks said, “The country has to get there, understanding that PTSD is being treated in the wrong way. The show is cathartic and emotional. The veterans are not damaged goods.”
Marks, who served on submarines in the US. Navy, said he learned “the value of dependence on others and a level of camaraderie.” These lessons learned are applicable to civilian life.
A jazz enthusiastic, Al Sikes spoke about Dominic Farinacci’s “lyrical trumpet’ and the emotion it spawns. “You can tell stories with the horn,” he said. He referred to Poling’s powerful narrative.” He too spoke about the retired staff sergeant’s authenticity.
Though he never served in the military. Sikes said he gained a new appreciation for military members after the September 11, 2001 attacks on our American homeland.
I applaud Marks and Sikes for helping to provide the financial support for a music drama intent on changing the image of a military veteran and bridging the gap between combat soldiers and a civilian world drawn to misconceptions about hardened veterans. Memories of combat and death do not vanish; nor are they necessarily personal aspects that should consign veterans to life with a label. While painful at times, heart-wrenching experiences can and do strengthen a person.
Dominick Farinacci and Jaynes Poling have combined their particular skills and experiences into a production embodying creative energy, musical excellence and pure, personal testimony. The result should capture rapt attention and change misconceptions.