'Do you reckon the officers make us hate them so we won’t hate each other?', jokes one young soldier to another as they stand guard, gazing out into the dark Afghan night. The 'dark Afghan night', however, was actually the packed audience of the Sydney Theatre Company's (STC) main stage, brimming with ADF officers including Chief of the Defence Force General David Hurley, for opening night of the soldier-acted play The Long Way Home.
Hurley was ready for the barbs, and anticipated that the play might lob some criticism at the ADF; after all, he initiated it. 'The idea for the play came from a visit to the UK I was participating in', Hurley recalled, 'where I saw a production of a play called The Two Worlds of Charlie F with wounded and ill members of the UK forces.'
With the Anzac centenary upon us, the withdrawal of Australian combat troops from Afghanistan complete, and PTSD and other mental health issues slowly finding a less stigmatised place in the discourse, both the ADF and the STC felt the time was ripe to re-create what Hurley witnessed in the UK here in Australia. As the title suggests, the play tackles the challenges of making the transition from a warzone back to civilian life, oftentimes with both physical and psychological wounds.
The cast of The Long Way Home is comprised of thirteen ADF personnel and four professional actors. The soldiers range in age and gender, and have served everywhere from East Timor and Malaysia to Iraq and Afghanistan. All have sustained injuries, many of which are hidden scars of war. Working closely with playwright Daniel Keene, the soldiers shared their stories and slowly a common set of themes emerged.
'My question to them really', said Keene, 'was what of their experience was most important to them? It might be that they were injured, or it was difficult to come home, or that it was the best time of their life.'
The Long Way Home tackles all of these themes, confronting head-on the the contradictions, disappointments, fears and hopes many soldiers face upon their return home. In one scene an ex-soldier meets with a recruiter to see about re-joining the ADF. After being told he's 'past his use-by date', he mournfully protests that his years of service were the best of his life.
But perhaps the scene that best sums up the intention of The Long Way Home happens early in the play. Two privates on a night patrol in Afghanistan are taking a moment to discuss their injured mate. 'If this was one of those war movies', says the younger of the two, 'he'd be back here tomorrow with a bandage on his head.'
They go on to discuss just how unrepresentative war movies are, joking that they watched the credits of The Hurt Locker solely to get the name of the military adviser, Google him, and troll him online. This play is their chance to tell their stories, to present their experiences in the most authentic way possible without the Hollywood varnish.
Captain Emma Palmer, a nursing officer and one of two female soldiers in the play, expressed the importance of having the opportunity to speak: 'This story is untold, and the Australian public really need to hear the stories about how people are changed by going into conflict and serving their country and what that means when you come home and you're different.'
Indeed, the play is intended to ease the participating soldiers' transition back into civilian life. The therapeutic benefits of drama and the arts is new territory for the ADF. Hurley is hopeful that being a part of The Long Way Home will be a part of a larger healing process. 'I think it will put them in a much better position personally to be able to deal with the transition', said Hurley, 'because we've seen, even from the early rehearsal days, a marked change in many of them in terms of their confidence and understanding of where they are and issues they're dealing with.'
Whether the ADF is providing adequate services for veterans suffering from mental health challenges is a topic of debate in which the play engages. However, The Long Way Home is a brave step in the right direction, as the de-stigmatisation of PTSD and other psychological injuries is a vital part of healing. It was nothing short of incredible to see the soldiers stand, hand in hand, eyes filling with tears as they received a standing ovation on one of Australia’s most prominent stages. One very big step on their own long way home.
For tour dates and bookings, visit www.sydneytheatre.com.au/longwayhometour.
Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.