Iraq Veterans Air Their Anger on an L.A. Stage

After Sept. 11, 2001, part-time actor Sean Huze enlisted in the Marines. While still in active duty, he wrote his first play, The Sand Storm. When he returned home Huze says, he was filled with rage at what he'd seen and been through. Last year, he and some other vets formed Vet Stage in Los Angeles to make their voices heard.

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SCOTT SIMON, Host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, the one-woman hit machine.

But first, Sean Huze was a U.S. Marine in Iraq. And when he returned home from battle, he struggled with civilian life until he found a way to deal with some of his experiences. Last year, with the help of some of his brothers in arms, he formed a theater company. It's called VetStage, and it's based here in Los Angeles.

Caitlin Shetterly reports.

CAITLIN SHETTERLY: Sean Huze was a 26-year-old actor in Hollywood until September 11th, 2001.

SEAN HUZE: Acting certainly was not paying my bills. I had a day job as a health care recruiter. I was making really good money and had a little apartment up in the hills, and I was just kind of being young with money in Hollywood, you know, it was cool. And September 11th happened, and September 12th I went to the Hollywood recruiting station at Sunset La Brea and told them that I wanted to enlist.

SHETTERLY: Fourteen months later, Huze was in Iraq. What he saw and did there made him question the mission. While still on active duty, he wrote a series of 10 monologues called "The Sandstorm." In this one, he plays a character named Corporal Waters who stumbles upon an Iraqi insurgent with both legs blown off.

HUZE: He started weeping and then he paused long enough for him to raise his hand and make the gun symbol with his thumb and forefinger. He pointed it at his own head and then put both his hands together like he was praying. I got it. He was begging me to put him out of his misery. I never took my eyes off him the whole time I ate. The more he wept and pleaded, the more I enjoyed my meal. See, I had lost friends over there already; knowing he'd die soon enough but he'd suffer in the meantime, and I'd eat.

SHETTERLY: Huze took a leave from the Marines to open the play in Los Angeles in a 30-seat theater underneath a Thai restaurant. It played to packed houses - two shows a night - and was reviewed by the Los Angeles Times. But not everybody wanted to hear what his play had to say.

HUZE: We ended up disconnecting our home telephone because of some death threat. It was a little spooky there for a minute. I moved my wife, you know, we're not together anymore but my wife at the time and my little boy - I moved them back out to L.A., so, I mean, it was tense. I think I slept with my 40 cal, and - I know I did.

SHETTERLY: The Marine Corps wasn't pleased either. He was threatened with Court Martial but, ultimately, was honorably discharged. Huze was furious that some people didn't want to hear what he had to say when he came home.

HUZE: I think I spent a year after I got out of the Marine Corps and was back in L.A. just daring somebody to be the one that I could just take everything and just focus it on them - daring somebody to be the one, you know?

SHETTERLY: Huze turned on his computer and wrote his second play, "The Wolf."

HUZE: Literally, I stayed up for, like, three days. I couldn't sleep, and I vomited the first draft out on my computer. And after doing so, I was able to realize just how angry I was, how volatile I was, and that I just couldn't - I really couldn't. I mean, whether I could live that way or not, that it wasn't how I wanted to live.

SHETTERLY: He decided to form a theater company to create a similar outlet for other veterans, but he didn't really know where to start. Help came from an unexpected ally - Academy Award winner Bobby Moresco, who co-wrote the film "Crash," read about Huze in the L.A. Times.

BOBBY MORESCO: I think most people in America - as opposed to the people screaming on the left and the people screaming on the right, let's now - let's get the bulk of the people in America look at these guys who've gone over there and fought our fight for us, and they'd like to try to help. Now, I'm a writer, I'm a director, and I'm a producer; that's the only thing I know how to do. That doesn't give me much, but it gives me enough to offer some help, and I'm just trying to use it.

SHETTERLY: Moresco sent Huze an e-mail offering to set-up writing and acting workshops for the vets. Huze found a small theater space on Santa Monica Boulevard and, within weeks, they were up and running.

MORESCO: This is a 70-seat theater with the possibility to bring in an extra row, so it can get up to 80 seats; that has not been an issue. It's production I'm afraid.

SHETTERLY: Their first production was "The Wolf"; it's about a Marine who can't adopt to civilian life. The play featured vets in all of the major roles, but it floundered at the box office and closed early; Huze started to wonder if keeping VetStage open was even feasible.

HUZE: We had a theater company meeting with veterans - guys from the Vietnam War all the way up to the current war - and, you know, I'm looking around. I mean, there's men, women, somebody that's 16, somebody that's 20, and they're sitting up at a theater company office at 10 o'clock at night on a Tuesday, and I just realized, I mean, they're there because they need this place to be open. They need to have this thing available to them, and they have something that they need to say.

SHETTERLY: Ultimately, VetStage could not afford to continue paying rent on its own theater and had to close.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): And when we get to the scene...

SHETTERLY: Actors are rehearsing their current play in the director's living room.

SIMON: You know what? I think less is more here. Okay?

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): Okay, especially...

SHETTERLY: The play is "Silent Heroes," written by Linda Escalera-Baggs to present Marine wives' perspectives of Vietnam. The VetStage production features three female actors who are veterans from the Iraq War.

Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) What's going on?

Unidentified Woman #3 (Actor): (As character) We don't really know anything.

Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) Liz William(ph) called Eleanor(ph) and said that Helen Maguire(ph) called and said that her next-door neighbor's husband who's a radio operator said that the Saratoga said that one of our planes was down.

Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) Oh, my god.

SIMON: (As character) So I called June who called base ops who couldn't confirm or deny anything so June(ph) called me and I got Kitty and we called you up...

Unidentified Woman #2: (As character) Unidentified Woman #4: (As character) Unidentified Woman #4: We have a plane down?

Woman #3 (Actor): (As character) According to the rumor; the last time the wives network was wrong was at Valley Forge.

SHETTERLY: "Silent Heroes" opened last weekend back at Huze's lucky spot, under the small Thai restaurant where he first staged "The Sand Storm."

For now, the members of VetStage plan to keep going from production to production as a gypsy company until they can get the solid ground of a new home underneath their feet.

For NPR News, I'm Caitlin Shetterly.

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