While stories about camaraderie and hardships in the military are often told through the news, books and documentaries, The Telling Project gives civilians an opportunity to hear first-hand accounts of these experiences in person.
Last year, the national performing arts non-profit worked with local public broadcasting station KCOS to capture the stories of six local veterans, which were turned into scripts written by playwright Max Rayneard. The veterans then took those scripts to the stage and shared their stories at several venues throughout El Paso.
“Once I read the script, I was blown away,” said Felix Arenas, who served both in the army and navy. “Max Rayneard did a magnificent job of weaving all the stories together so that they made sense. It was so well crafted that for the first couple of readings, we just couldn’t get through it. We broke down then and there. We had to help each other read through our parts.
“Even though we were reading about something that was already part of us, to read it and hear it in the way that it was written was very moving.”
The same six veterans are bringing “Telling El Paso – Our Veterans, Their Stories” to the Philanthropy Theatre stage this Sunday, Nov. 12. The show will be followed by a Q&A session.
“It’s much more interesting than fiction,” said Hector Serrano, a longtime theater director who coached the veterans during last year’s productions. “It’s really not a play, because it’s people telling their own stories.”
Eden Enterprises, a local theater company Serrano is a part of, is once again producing the show, this time directed by Mika Vinson. Sunday’s production is made possible by the Jewel Box Series, a project of the El Paso Community Foundation that brings locally-made shows to the Philanthropy Theater every month.
The veterans sharing their stories come from diverse backgrounds, ranging from those who served during Operation Iraqi Freedom to the Vietnam War. Last year, they brought their show to places like the Chamizal National Memorial theater and the War Eagles Air Museum. For Arenas, the show not only helped civilians get a glimpse into military life, but formed a bond between him and his fellow veterans as well.
“We have become good friends,” Arenas said. “We thought that last year’s performances were it, but now that this opportunity came up, everybody was so excited to get together again.”
For Sylvia Charf, a Juarez native who served in the Army for 21 years and deployed to Iraq twice, it was difficult but necessary to talk about overcoming alcoholism.
“Once I got done with work, I couldn’t deal with my personal life,” Charf said. “People didn’t know I would come home every day and drink and drink. I was a functional alcoholic.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 20 veterans commit suicide every day – a statistic that has weighed heavy on Charf.
“The main reason I put myself out there in this show is because I’m very concerned with the suicides of veterans,” she said. “I felt that if at least one veteran could hear my story, they could see that there’s light at the end of the tunnel as bad as things seem.”
Audiences should note that some of the experiences discussed during the show include rape and suicide attempt.
“The vast majority of the civilian population has no idea what a person goes through inside the military, and so I hope this show gives them a little glimpse of what they go through,” Arenas said.
Hardships aside, the veterans also share how their time in the military helped form lasting friendships, careers and a sense of purpose.
“Each one of the six veterans up there is a person full of pride for their country and community,” Arenas said.