Coming Home

ca-thar-sis / the transformative power of art

The HomeFront Theater Project’s adaptation and performance of Sophocles’ Ajax and the conversation which followed on Sunday afternoon was an emotionally cathartic experience whether attendees were veterans, active duty, or civilians. The event, held at the ENT Center for the Arts on the UCCS campus, was both performance and dialogue where attendees moved from audience to participants as they reflected on the wounds of war and “coming home.”


The 30-minute reading of the play highlighted the challenge of returning from war as experienced by Ajax, Achilles’ brother, and an honorable and distinguished warrior in his own right. Ajax presumes that he will be awarded Achilles’ armor, as was custom, but he is slighted when two generals bestow that honor on Odysseus. The abridged version of the play reveals Ajax’s struggle with the dishonor through conversations with his wife, Tecmessa, and his emotional outcries to the gods. While Ajax reveals the anguish and despair of his return from war, Tecmessa provides a reflective voice on the meaning of war, war’s impact on Ajax, and what his imminent suicide will mean for both her and their son.


The small cast of four (Robert Rais/Ajax, Carmen Shedd/Tecmessa, Jordan Matthews/Teucer, Raphael Siag/Chorus) delivered a terrifically moving reading of the condensed play. While they did not “perform” the play with costumes or staging, their individual and collective voices expressed the pain, confusion, and agony endured and suffered by all those impacted by war.

But the most impactful aspect of the night was the nearly hour-long conversation that happened following the reading. Dr. Max Shulman, who initiated the HomeFront Theater project upon his arrival at UCCS, facilitated the discussion which was kicked off with a panel of three from the Colorado Springs area: Dr. Phillip Morris, Director of the UCCS Office of Military and Veteran Affairs; Dr. Tom McGuire, USAFA, Ret., Associate Professor of English, USAFA; Erin Fowler, Clinical Therapist at the UCCS Lane Center, Veterans Health and Trauma Clinic.

Following their brief remarks, many of the 50+ participants revealed through their comments what a cathartic event theater, specifically, and art, more generally, can be.  It is a testament to the healing power of the creative arts.

Comments moved between insights on the play to reflections on personal experiences of those in the audience. As an aside, it is difficult to call this an audience. At this point in the evening, we were all participants in the event. The reading engaged us in an emotional experience that then gave us a way into and through our own experiences. The performance, in other words, was a catalyst into a conversation that otherwise may not have happened or, if it had, may not have reached the emotional and intimate depths that it did.

The dialogue among audience members started with a comment that Ajax, in his “prearticulate expression” of his anguish, wanted public recognition, wanted his story told, but could not fight through his pain and his isolation for either to happen. 2500 years ago, Sophocles captured the emotional and moral dilemma of the returning soldier: the desire to tell his or her story (in his/her own terms and timing), the isolation that prevents the telling, and the inability of the civilian friend, spouse, or child to understand the warrior’s experience.

Two of the wounds of war – the feeling that one is a burden on others after his/her return and the isolation veterans may experience – are what many veterans bear when they return. One veteran participant talked about the moral injury that veterans may feel. Beyond the physical trauma some may experience – PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury, for instance – some veterans may experience a moral injury, the damage done to the soul, to their moral compass when there is a transgression to their own moral beliefs and ethical values.

As one veteran mentioned in the evening, “we may not be able to process it when you say ‘thank you for your service.’ We may not be proud of some of the things we did when we served. Sometimes we just need to hear ‘thank you for coming home.’”

Other veterans, from Vietnam Veterans to those who served in Operation Desert Storm, echoed similar sentiments about their return. The history of how we perceive and honor U.S. veterans changes with each war: the “greatest generation” of WWII veterans, the soldiers who fought the Korean War (“the Forgotten War”), those who returned from Vietnam and changed into civilian clothes before they deplaned in San Francisco lest they be spit on, and the soldiers who fought “an unwinnable war” in the Middle East, in a land that we understand so little.

Each war seems to have its own cultural and historical context; each veteran has his or her own personal frame in which their experience is situated. Each soldier, one of the veterans reminded us, has their “own narrative and that narrative is evolving. “

A veteran who served her country for 22 years and who recently arrived in Colorado Springs movingly told of her experience coming home. Her story revealed some of the tensions that can happen between family members and the returning veteran, between current service members and veterans, and the veterans themselves as they struggle to transition into civilian life. Her eyes welled up with tears, as did many in the theater, as she spoke.

Colonel McGuire from the Air Force Academy expressed what we were all probably feeling when she finished: “You told us your story, and I cannot help but honor you.”

And that, in essence, captures the importance of the evening.

It is through story-telling that we begin to understand, to empathize, to forge a relationship with others. Whether it is the veteran telling her story to another (or to a theater full of people), whether it is a civilian listening to a veteran’s story without judgment but with compassion, the act of telling our stories that gives us a chance to heal.

Thank you for coming home.  Thank you for telling your stories.



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