By Ms. Gloria Montgomery (Army Medicine)February 9, 2018
It was a numbing and sobering experience for the captivated audience of uniformed soldiers embedded in their seats on hand for BASETRACK Live, a gritty, yet visually stunning multimedia production depicting war and its aftermath. When it was over, there was a quiet calm as the 500-plus Soldiers filtered out of Fort Hood's Palmer Theater deep in thought about the 60-minute emotional roller coaster they had just witnessed.
Realistic and moving, BASETRACK Live is a two-person show that tells the story of Marine Cpl. AJ Czubai's 2010 deployment with the 1st Battalion, 8th Marines to Afghanistan's Helmand Province.
The story centers around Czubai and his wife, Melissa as they both try to readjust and cope to post-deployment challenges, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), marriage difficulties, alcohol abuse and suicide.
Serving as a backdrop, but integral to the story, is journalistic footage and interviews with other members of his unit, as well as with Family members. Photograph of the Marines and the Afghanistan people are also projected on stage and are accompanied by a haunting, but electrify musical score.
The purpose of the production, according to Anne Hamburger, executive producer, is "to stimulate conversations, build community and combat isolations."
"Although it's a story about a Marine infantry person, it's really everyone's story," said Hamburger. "It doesn't matter if it's a Soldier or a Sailor because the issues are all the same."
Poignant and Realistic
The production for Staff Sgt. Savita Curtis, 1st Cavalry Division, was both poignant and realistic.
After two deployments to Afghanistan and one to Iraq, Curtis said she had difficulty sharing her deployment experiences with Family and friends. Just like AJ, the combat engineer said she felt isolated and alone when she returned home.
"Yes, we do feel isolated because we feel no one else can understand what we've gone through," she said, adding that talking about war and combat can sometimes takes Soldiers back to a scenario they don't want to remember. "This really touched me because it reminds you that you're not the only one that's dealing with these issues."
It also didn't matter to the Army staff sergeant that the story was about a Marine.
"We're all Soldiers at the end of the day regardless of our Military Occupation Specialty," she said. "When you're on the front line, you're on the front line. It's the same battle."
The multimedia documentary, which premiered in 2014, has toured in 40 cities across the United States. The Fort Hood venue is the first time it has been staged at a military installation, something that surprised combat veteran, Sgt. Ian Spangler, 1st Cavalry Division.
"It really should be on tour at every military base because this affects us all," he said, adding that the production is also an educational lesson in the realities of war. "You see for the first time how it impacts the Family."
According to retired Lt. Col. Arthur DeGroat, Kansas State University's military affairs executive director, the 2,000 plus Soldiers and Family members who saw the production during its Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 four-show run, can thank III Corps Commander General, Lt. Gen. Paul Funk II, for the Fort Hood venue.
"After attending a performance in Kansas, Lieutenant General Funk saw how art can be the catalyst for change and be used to educate the public and the military Family on the realities of wartime service, rehabilitation and transition," DeGroat said.
Although DeGroat said touring the country in military-connected communities has helped bridge the divide between community and military, bringing the production to a military base was critical to its social mission.
"Many members came off base to see it and saw how important the production was in their lives," he said, adding that the most impacted were the spouses who, for the first time, saw what their service member had endured. "It would take years and more cities to get thousands of Soldiers to see it. That's why it was important to bring BASETRACK Live to Fort Hood."
On hand for the performance was AJ, who credits the Department of Veterans Affairs mental health resources with saving his life. Today, he is one semester shy of earning a degree in civil engineering at the University of Texas in Arlington. Now divorced, AJ said that he as his wife were at "each other's throats and didn't talk to one another" when he first saw the production in 2014.
"It was the first time I saw what she had gone through, and I saw the way I was acting," said the Fort Worth native who was separated from the Marines after being wounded in action during his Afghanistan deployment.
Indeed, in the production an emotional Melissa breaks down when someone asks her how she is holding up because it was the first time since her husband was shot that someone actually had cared how she was doing.
"It kind of just puts stuff in perspective," he said, adding that although they did not have a fairytale ending, they are today, really great friends. "BASETRACK really helped us bury the hatchet."
Battling the Enemy at Home
Some of the problems AJ had in turning off the "kill switch" during his transitioning to civilian life remain the same as today's combat Soldier said Dr. Scott Engel, director of Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center's Intrepid Spirit.
"Some Soldiers come home with the enemy within," said Engel on the common symptoms of war syndrome: anxiety, avoidance, memory and concentration difficulty, sleep difficulty and vigilance. "And that's the enemy's goal of marginalizing, stigmatizing and isolating us. If we can think about it in those terms, then we can flip the script, and try and figure out the ingredients to winning the war within."
Col. David Gibson, CRDAMC commander, said one of the major reasons for bringing BASETRACK Live to Fort Hood is to start that dialogue of getting help.
"We still have a problem with stigma," he said, adding that this hurts readiness. "Some people still don't feel comfortable in seeking help, but as leaders, we need to encourage and help that Soldier get help."
AJ, who prefers the BASETRACK Live "in your face" approach to getting help, encouraged those who still are hesitate to seek help to do so.
"Yes, this is very much in your face," he said. "But this also helps you and your Family realize and recognize the life you had before war and how you can get it back on track. There's no reason why you need to be miserable the rest of your life."