“I have found that the workshop provided an uncensored, unfiltered platform for us to express our thoughts and emotions related to our combat experiences,” says Anthony Torres. “Sharing stories not only normalized our similar experiences, but we realized our work could prove a useful tool in de-stigmatizing veterans issues such as post-traumatic stress and suicide by sharing these stories with others in the community.” Torres a veteran and a member of The Combat Hippies, a local collective of vets who’ve turned to the performing arts and poetry as a method to help them transition back to civilian life, is an easygoing guy with a tranquil and friendly face.
“We as a group are using the performing arts to de-stigmatize veteran's issues such as Post-Traumatic Stress, suicide, and community reintegration,” states the Combat Hippies’ Facebook page. “But raising awareness isn't enough. Our goal is to engage the community because we are stronger together.” It is no secret that veteran services in this country have seriously lacked since the Vietnam era. For all the posturing and fanfare returning vets receive from grateful civilians, there is a serious disconnect between reality and fiction.
Which is no easy pun for continuity here but the perception of war has been romanticized in the arts to a point where the actual point is missed. Look at how Anthony Swofford’s 2003 book, Jarhead, ushered in the modern era’s veteran’s literature. His autobiographical account of the first Persian Gulf War was an unflattering portrayal of his war lust through the recruitment, training, deployment and post-bellum process. It was an eye-opening and accessible work for a whole generation of readers who had skipped over Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.
It was a door blown open in the nascent days of the Iraq War and a new class of alumni experiencing the horrors of war. Post-war assimilation has not been the easiest for many returning veterans and this country faces a myriad of challenges when it comes to dealing with their care but for many, writing and the arts are the cathartic experience needed to ease back into civilian life. Paired with the reduction of arts education in general, it is almost too blatant a slap to ignore the severity of the situation. Clearly, these are two areas that can benefit from each other. Miami, with its burgeoning artistic and literary profile, is uniquely poised to bridge this necessary action for easing the transition for our returning vets.
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“I was contacted by MDC Live Arts through a mutual friend, P. Scott Cunningham, who brought an O, Miami event to the Miami VA in 2012,” explains Torres. “MDC Live Arts was looking for a combat vet with an interest in writing and performing to assist with coordinating the Live Arts’ vets lab this year from January to April.” Led by theater artist Teo Castellanos and accompanied by local rapper Brimstone 127, the Combat Hippies recently held an open mic rehearsal/invite at Books & Books in preparation for this performance of “Conscience Under Fire.” The Combat Hippies aim to educate and involve the community in the demilitarizing of the war experience for returning veterans through the arts and for a better understanding of the unique military culture that binds soldiers together. It is a great first step on the long road of healing.
“We hope to continue to utilize the creative arts as a way to encourage people of all walks of life to find creative ways to express themselves,” says Torres. “We also plan on creating more community engagement opportunities as a way to bridge the gap between veterans and their civilian counterparts, such as Open Mic events and volunteer work such as with The Mission Continues, a non-profit which pairs post 9/11 vets with non-profit organizations in their communities as a way to support community reintegration.”
Conscience Under Fire at 8 p.m. on Friday, September 11 and Saturday, September 12 at Miami-Dade College’s Teatro Prometeo, 300 NE Fourth St., Miami. Both nights are free and open to the public. Call 305-237-3262 or visit teatroprometeo.org.