Four Florida veterans shine a different light on PTSD

Teo Castellanos directs spoken-word piece by local veterans at Teatro Prometeo at Miami Dade College

The four soldiers stand in the shadows, in the agreed-upon formation, waiting for an order, a way forward. Each knows war intimately, the blood and the battles of Iraq still a daily nightmare. But tonight, they are here to face an enemy unseen.

"I need you in the light," comes a staccato voice, punching through the darkness. "Don't look at it. Feel it. It's warm. If you don't feel the light on your face, find it!"

Teo Castellano offers the old theater tip — which helps an actor move into position while keeping eye contact with the audience — as he guides Andrew Cuthbert, a 28-year-old ex-Marine from Plantation, into a small pool of light at Miami Dade College's Teatro Prometeo.

It is in the patches of illumination on this stage Friday, the anniversary of 9/11, and Saturday, that esteemed playwright and actor Castellano will direct a production of "Conscience Under Fire," a spoken-word piece written and performed by Cuthbert and his fellow Iraq War veterans: Hipolito Arriaga, of Plantation; Anthony Torres, of Homestead; and Allen Minor, of Daytona Beach.

The four have been working together since January as part of MDC Live Arts' creative-writing lab for veterans, which yielded "Conscience Under Fire," a blunt, sometimes humorous look at the emotions conjured up by war and posttraumatic stress disorder.

As DJ Brimstone127 samples the Jimi Hendrix version of "The Star Spangled Banner," the four men take the stage at the rehearsal in matching black T-shirts that strike the word "stress" to celebrate another slogan: "Post-traumatic growth."

Each man has chosen his own style and subject matter: At the rehearsal, Cuthbert relates tales of life in a tough Broward neighborhood with a singsong swagger. Arriaga's riff returns to the battlefield, his body tense with anger. Minor rages at the long-absent father who shares his name and face. Torres is a boy, obsessed with superhero mythology, his soft voice disguising the menace to come.

"There is healing in their writing and their performance, and in speaking of their experiences," Castellanos says.

Torres, who is studying social work at Barry University, says the production is also a way to promote and humanize veterans issues.

"Twenty-two veterans per day are committing suicide," he says. "PTSD awareness and suicide awareness is a big part of our mission. We hope to … engage the community in helping to bring that number down to zero."

"Conscience Under Fire," which clocks in at under an hour, was first performed in April before a standing-room crowd in the B Bar at the literary-minded Betsy Hotel during the O, Miami poetry festival. This weekend's shows in the 111-seat Teatro Prometeo, which are free, will be its first performances on a theater stage, where Castellanos can stoke its theatricality.

"I need intensity!" he barks, urging the men to march into place with more vigor. He recites a few lines back to them in the booming voice of a drill sergeant. "I want the audience to say, 'Who are these crazy m------------ here?!"

Arriaga, 31, joined the Marines at age 19 and did two tours in Iraq during four years of active duty as a field-artillery cannon crewman. Based in Fallujah, Cuthbert, 28, was a radio operator and, later, an embassy security guard.

Torres, 34, was an Army mental-health specialist at Iraq's notorious Abu Ghraib Prison. Minor was a mortuary affairs specialist in the Army, a job that involved processing the bodies and personal belongings of the dead.

Each is dealing with some form of what Arriaga calls the "hell" of PTSD.

Torres, currently interning at the VA Medical Center in Miami, ministered to both soldiers and detainees at Abu Ghraib, while also trying to maintain the mental and emotional health of himself and fellow staffers.

"It was a tough mission," he says. "You know, who takes care of the people who are taking care of the troops? That was on us to do that for each other."

During a break in the rehearsal, Minor offers a vivid memory of performing an autopsy and inspecting the personal effects of "a 17-year-old kid." Before it could be packed up and sent to the family, the soldier's journal had to be examined for any classified information. Minor read every word, creating a strange bond between them.

"He had updated his journal every day, up until the day before he died," Minor says. "He was in a unit, and they were in a very precarious situation, and he knew that they were. He didn't feel comfortable there, and so he put in a transfer request. And he got the request approved. He was going to be a scout. And the day before he was going to be transferred, that's when they got attacked. And he was killed."

Articulate and engaging, with an easy laugh, Minor recites the story with a detachment that he later apologizes for. It is the "weird effect" of the years of cataloging bodies and soldiers' memories, he says.

"In the beginning, it did impact me in a very emotional way, and it was difficult to overcome that," he says. "But after a while, as callous as it sounds, and I apologize for that, eventually you become kind of numb to it."

Once back home, Minor entered "a very dark period," with strong bouts of depression and suicidal feelings.

Expressing these emotions, especially onstage, is uncomfortable, but important, Minor says. Soldiers learn to divert their feelings in the military, but that's only half the job, he says.

"Eventually, if you do begin to unlearn that, and release it, they never teach you how to cope with it, once it comes out," he says. "You learn how to bottle it in, and then it all comes exploding out in whatever form it's going to take, whether that's anger or depression … and that's a difficult period."

"Conscience Under Fire" will be performed 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 11-12, at Teatro Prometeo at Miami Dade College, 300 NE Fourth St., Miami. Admission is free with a ticket, which can be obtained at MDCLiveArts.org.

bcrandell@sunsentinel.com

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