From left to right, Adrienne Brammer, Matthew Thomas Burda, BR McDonald, Roman Baca and Sandra Lee, all veterans, told their stories at Bay Street Theater on Saturday. Photography by Jody Gambino.
By Mara Certic
Every soldier has a story; a report of why they enlisted, a personal account of rigorous training, their experiences in war and, very often, their difficult civilian epilogues.
On Saturday, October 3, Sag Harborites had the opportunity to hear some of these stories when “This is What We Fought For” came to the Bay Street Theater. The Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund, in collaboration with The Telling Project and the Veteran Artist Program, welcomed veterans and their family members to the stage to tell their honest, scripted and rehearsed tales of war.
Shelter Island native Lieutenant Joseph J. Theinert was killed in action during combat operations in Afghanistan on June 4, 2010. In his honor, the Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund was founded to award scholarships and to provide support to organizations that enrich the lives of active and veteran United States service members. By the end of this year they will have given out $20,000 in scholarships and $15,000 to various military service organizations.
One of the organizations the foundation supports is the Veteran Artists Program (VAP), which helps artists who happen to be veterans, propel their work into the mainstream.
This original production began with Lt. Thienert’s brother James, affectionately known as “Jimbo,” recounting the story of when he found out his brother had been killed. He was working on the South Ferry when his father broke the news to him. He talked about how he tries to deal with that loss, and about the importance of the performance to follow, and telling your story.
“The men and women on stage tonight will never forget their experiences… it is just not possible,” he said.
“It is part of the mission of the Joseph J Theinert Memorial Fund that we help to create a world that allows them to share these experiences so they are not shackled by them for the rest of their lives,” Mr. Theinert said.
Five veterans of the armed forces, all members of VAP, took to the stage, weaving their stories together in little vignettes, intertwined with the occasional song or military chant.
During one musical interlude, Roman Baca pirouetted across the stage. Mr. Baca, who served in the United States Marine Corps, was deployed to Fallujah, Iraq from 2005 to 2006. “I didn’t tell anyone in boot camp I was a ballet dancer,” he said in one vignette. When he finally told three of his friends, “two of them thought it was the greatest thing they’d ever heard. One never spoke to me again,” he said.
Mr. Baca likes to remember the humanitarian missions he went on, delivering soccer balls to children and giving food and water to people in need. But that didn’t stop him from becoming angry when he left the army. He was often enraged, he said, and his relationships suffered. Ballet has helped him, and recently Mr. Baca returned to Iraq to teach young adults how to express themselves through dance.
Air Force veteran Adrienne Brammer also served in Fallujah. Ms. Brammer joined the air force to see the world, she said. She worked as a reporter, anchor, cameraman and radio deejay for the American Forces Network in Iceland, South Korea and Italy. She loved traveling and exploring and enjoyed her work, but when she was reassigned to the 1st Combat Camera Squadron, she felt somewhat underused. She left the air force after 14 years, without benefits, and is now following her dream and studying acting at Marymount Manhattan College.
BR McDonald, founder of VAP, always had a strong love of the arts. Mr. McDonald joined the army after the events of September 11 and served for seven years as an Arabic linguist and a Special Operator in the Joint Specials Operations Command. He lived his life in “cover,” he said. He lived his covers; he became who he needed to be to get missions done. This made him one of the best at his job, but changed his personal life forever.
Mr. McDonald kept his life in America with his girlfriend completely separate from his life overseas. When living a cover on one mission, Mr. McDonald fell in love. He sweetly told the story of how he spent time with this woman for months, until one day he was re-assigned and had to leave without telling her why.
The evening was awash with unexpected, honest and raw tales of the military. U.S. Air Force veteran Matthew Thomas Burda’s stories of working security in an Afghan prison were interwoven with U.S. Army veteran Sandra Lee’s account of the first time she was blown up by an IED. This would happen to her three more times before she eventually left the army.
Ms. Lee served in civil affairs in the army; one of the many things she did overseas was to oversee the rebuilding of schools in Western Baghdad. She had never seen anyone so excited to have working plumbing, she said, adding there was “a lot of good” that happened.
“A lot of not so good things happened too,” she said.
After leaving the army, she went back to finish school and immersed herself in her studies. It wasn’t until more than a year after returning to civilian life that Ms. Lee fell into a deep, debilitating depression and was eventually diagnosed with PTSD.
She’s doing better now, she said. “I’m on medication that stops me remembering my nightmares,” she said, which helps, but that also means she cannot recall her good dreams.
“But now I study acting,” she said. “It’s been my therapy, my healer.”