Military Report: Greek tragedy performed to bridge topic of suicide prevention with deploying soldiers

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) Community members performed a dramatic reading on Fort Wainwright to about 2,000 soldiers who are deploying starting at the end of August. As part of their deployment briefings before they leave, community members worked with leadership to arrange a performance of the play Ajax by Sophocles to bring up the topic of suicide and talk about prevention. After the performance of the play, they had Jim Wisland, founder and director for the Arctic Resource for Suicide Prevention process the play and talk about the different themes within it.

Community members performed a dramatic reading of Ajax by Sophocles on Fort Wainwright to about 2,000 soldiers who are deploying starting at the end of August. (Sara Tewksbury/KTVF)

"This play just actually supplements some of the suicide prevention training that we already put on, and it's just another means, or another avenue, to allow soldiers to feel comfortable talking about suicide," said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kimberly Puntillo, suicide prevention program manager for 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team.

Epic poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, have been previously used to discuss combat experiences with soldiers and veterans. Here in Fairbanks, there is a program, the Epic Warrior Training, which is a broader suicide prevention effort utilizing ancient texts. Last fall Wisland says they did the Iliad reading group, and took a group of about 10 soldiers through the Iliad and this fall they are taking soldiers through Homer's Odyssey. Wisland says the Odyssey talks about the difficulties of coming home after combat and the play Ajax talks about a warrior who takes his own life, and the repercussions of the suicide among the Greek Army personnel and his wife and family members.

"They are just as timeless, and just as relevant now, today as they were back then. The same issues that Ajax is facing, those are the same current issues that our soldiers are encountering. Loss of identity, the loss of honor, the shame that accompanies that, those are all really relevant for military standing," said Wisland.

Milt Sawyer said he was speaking with the Fort Wainwright retiree council, which he is a part of, about how they can help prevent future suicides of soldiers here in Fairbanks. When he read Ajax, he looked into whether that could be performed to the soldiers to discuss the topic of suicide and then he found a national group, Theatre of War Productions, which was using Ajax for this purpose. Sawyer spoke to Army leadership and once they agreed to the concept, he asked the Fairbanks Shakespeare Theatre if they would be willing to do the performance, which Sawyer says he didn't even get past the first sentence, before they agreed.

Five people from the Fairbanks community performed the different roles of 'Ajax' to the soldiers, and many of the performers have personal experience with suicide in their families that they shared with the soldiers. One of those performers was Diane Benson, an actor and assistant professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who played the role of Tecmessa, the family member of Ajax, who in the play takes his own life. Benson says it's different performing a role like in this in front of a thousand troops, she says "it's much more than about theater, it's about their survival and being able to have that important dialogue so that you hopefully can say the words, be present, do something to prevent someone from committing suicide or taking that action."

"Anytime we can bring awareness whether it's already existing suicide awareness training and then couple it with the performance by the Ajax crew that has real life experience and are veterans of either suicide or have faced it somehow within their family or themselves. It's an ability for soldiers to connect with a real world person and kind of get those experiences and bring that awareness and let everyone know it's okay to speak about it, and seek help without any kind of repercussions to them," said Major Adam Kirschling, executive officer for the 2nd Battalion, 8 Field Artillery.

"Combat veterans are affected in similar ways since time began and until time will end most likely. Hopefully those that are having a hard time with combat experience will wake up through these readings, and understand that it's not a new thing. To them it is, but it's been going on for a long time," said Benno Cleveland, a Vietnam veteran who says he spent 18 years in darkness after being medically discharged. "A lot of our veterans, no matter where we are across this great nation, we continue to pray and have great hopes for our young soldiers that are serving now and those that are going to be getting out and becoming what we call veterans, because we have tremendous respect and love for them, and we want them to understand they're not by themselves."

Wisland says this was a first time effort, but that they hope to continue it in different venues across the community.

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