The war is over but not the battle

The war in Afghanistan may be over for most Australian soldiers but the psychological and physical scars of this brutal conflict still need healing.

That healing has already begun with the steady release of soldiers' memoirs and other personal accounts of the experience of modern warfare.

What this stream of literature is also dealing with is the nature of transition from military to civilian life, given that many injured and damaged soldiers can no longer serve in the army.

For those who lost mates in the conflict, or were injured themselves, the transition has not been easy, with post-traumatic stress disorder often a barrier to successful recovery and transition. While writing books about the effects of war on the human psyche serves to deal with stress and psychological damage, another way is through the theatrical experience.

One such experience is The Long Way Home, a series of encounters with soldiers who literally enact their military lives on stage - giving the audience an insight into what it is like to enlist in the army, go off to war and be shot at.

And then come home, face their families and have to deal with it.

The Long Way Home came about because in 2012 Gen. David Hurley, the Australian Defence Force chief, saw The Two Worlds of Charlie F, a play at the Haymarket Theatre in London about British soldiers who had been injured in the war.

Gen. Hurley was so moved by the production, and the experience of seeing soldiers on stage telling their own stories, that he felt a similar production should be mounted in Australia.

The show's director, Stephen Rayne, was invited by the Australian Defence Force to collaborate with the Sydney Theatre Company in mounting a similar version with Australian troops.

The Long Way Home began with a six-week rehearsal process under playwright Daniel Keene, who listened to the experiences of soldiers, most of whom had come out of Afghanistan, and tightened them into play scripts. In the end, 12 soldiers' tales out of 15 interviewed were used in the final script, with the soldiers agreeing to play themselves on stage - or dramatised versions of their personal stories. None of them had any theatre experience or knew anything about acting.

"We took them through a crash-course in actor training, with group discussions, workshops and one-on-one conversations helping shape the raw material into something dramatic and theatrical," says Keene, one of the country's most experienced playwrights.

"They might not have been actors but as military men they were prepared to 'give it a nudge' as they say in that tradition of the military, and were open and generous with their feelings." One of those volunteer soldiers is Craig Hancock, who has spent the past 12 months at a recovery centre in Darwin set up by the army. Hancock's fourth tour of overseas duty ended in Afghanistan when he suffered a serious back injury in an explosion.

He says he was initially reluctant to take part in the production, but after the workshopping experience became totally committed to what was being attempted in helping in the recovery process.

"It's not a verbatim piece of theatre but there are elements of each person's story in the script," Hancock says.

"It's been edited into a number of themes that are woven through each account. There's joining the military; being over there; coming home; and dealing with the consequences." Hancock, who is married with two children, says that in August he will be discharged from the army and faces finding a new job after being in the army since he left school.

He says performing in The Long Way Home has given him much more confidence in facing up to the challenges of life after the army.

Keene says a common theme was the recognition that coming home from war would be difficult. "It kept coming up that they were now changed men - and some women - and the focus of their stories is on the domestic aspect of their recovery from injury or post-traumatic stress syndrome," he says.

He says these personal stories do not deal with the question of whether the war in Afghanistan was worth it, and how the politics has played out.

"Whether you agree or not with the war, the play is about men who joined up to serve their country and came back damaged," he says. "What we are doing with The Long Way Home is giving a voice to these men who served in our name."

As to the question of whether his script has fictionalised the men's experiences, Keene says it is a case of yes and no.

"They play themselves as re-imagined, but the raw material is theirs," he says.


The West Australian

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