Alex Koehl was perched on a wall, regaling a group of interviewers with his story of parachuting into Iraq. Listeners were fascinated by the story of how soldiers had to bail out of the plane before a green light went to red, which meant that anyone left on the plane had to fly back to Italy.
Koehl is an actor, a theater major at the University of Kentucky. But the character he portrays is far from half a world away. He is playing Jonathan Herst, an Iraq war veteran whose Army unit was among the first to parachute into the Iraq during the war. Herst also is a student at UK now.
Koehl and seven other actors were rehearsing Bringing It Home: Voices of Student Veterans, a play based on interviews with five UK students who served in Iraq and Afghanistan The show — which will be presented Thursday and Friday at UK's Buell Armory in Barker Hall — was created in collaboration with the Veterans Resource Center and the UK Libraries' Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History.
"I hope non-veterans will get out of it who I am and why I am the way I am," said Stephanie Murphy, 29, a Kentucky Air National Guard member who deployed to Iraq in 2003 and is portrayed in the play by actor Joe Fields-Elswick. "I go to classes the same as a lot of other people, but I'm different from them, and I don't think they understand that.
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"I think if they watch that play, they would get a better understanding of who I am, what I've been through, and why certain things are important to me like respect for teachers and anyone, and why certain little things don't matter to me much.
"When you're overseas and you don't shower for months and you have water rations and you don't have food on a regular basis, what you worry about changes."
Ian Abney, 26, a student who served three tours of duty in Iraq with the Marines between 2003 and 2007, said, "Anyone that goes to the play will feel as close to the characters — us, I guess — as you can without being there. You can feel the emotions of the veterans. It's done really well."
The other veterans portrayed in the show are Andrew Napier, who served in Afghanistan with the National Guard in 2008 and '09; and Nathan Noble, who served three tours in Iraq with the Marines between 2003 and '06.
Raising awareness about student veterans and the wars was important to playwright Herman Daniel Farrell III, who started the project last spring in his "Staging History" course, which looked at how the stage has portrayed history, from early Greek theater to Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project, which chronicled reaction to the 1998 murder of gay student Matthew Shepard.
"We identified early on the underlying principal to be to bridge the gap between the veteran and the civilian worlds," Farrell said. "The play is for veterans, because they have a very visceral response to it, but it's also for civilians because it shows them what the veterans are going through. It's very helpful for both communities."
When Farrell and his class decided to pursue a project on veterans, he approached the Veterans Resource Center, where he discovered that the oral history center was working on a veterans project, "From Combat to Kentucky," videotaping interviews with student veterans about their experiences. (The project is still collecting stories from student soldiers; for more information, go to C2ky.org.)
Farrell's students watched the interviews to form the script, most of which consists of verbatim quotations from the students who served.
Among those students was Michael Fischer, a Navy veteran who served with the Marines in Iraq in 2006. Fischer said he became an intermediary between the theater and the veterans, helping to decipher military lingo in the interviews.
The stories in the show, which will move the actors and audience around Buell Armory, range from day-to-day life, such as Murphy talking about how she eventually started rolling out of her bunk without waking up when her unit came under mortar fire, to harrowing accounts of suddenly losing close friends.
Tyler Gayheart, 26, a graduate student who served with the Marines in Afghanistan, conducted the interviews. He said he was initially wary of the theater project, worried that it might be disrespectful or exploit the veterans.
When the show premiered last spring in a couple of quickly arranged public performances, his fears were laid to rest.
"I love it," Gayheart said. "I think it's the best way a university or theater department could take these stories and present them to the public."
For Fischer, who was a theater kid growing up in Mayfield, it showed the real power of his chosen art form.
"Theater helps people understand; theater helps people grasp new ideas," he said. "I didn't see that until last year, that if you put a good play together and you have good people producing it, portraying this play, you can make a difference."