The name Charles Whittlesey isn't as well-known as it once was. The lawyer-turned-soldier led what became known as the "Lost Battalion" in the Argonne Forest during World War I. His rapid advance and a breakdown in communications left the group's roughly 550 men trapped behind enemy lines, surrounded by German forces. The Germans demanded the Americans surrender, and it's said he responded "Go to hell!"
"Dinner is incomplete, send wine," quips William Bowling as Whittlesey ad-libbing flippant responses to the Germans as he reimagines the story in Goat in the Road's production of Foreign to Myself, which premiered at the Contemporary Arts Center last year and is being remounted at UNO's Robert E. Nims Theatre Jan. 12-21.
He offers various responses in retelling the story, from single-digit gestures to witty repartee.
In reality, the battalion held out for five days before help arrived. There were 170 men killed or missing. Whittlesey became a national hero and a household name. After the war, he never fully re-acclimated to civilian life or his former profession.
Many characters in Foreign to Myself are based substantially or partially on veterans who returned from more recent service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Alex (Darci Fulcher) has just returned from a third tour of duty in Afghanistan and is flummoxed by the bureaucracy at the department of motor vehicles. The irony is funny, as is the officious tone and language of the desk atten-dant who demands a valid ID. As a decorated military mechanic, Alex was responsible for keeping vehicles and machines operating, but she is struggling to get her life back in gear at home. That transition, the stress of war and post-traumatic stress disorder are among the components of service explored in the drama, which explores the gap in understanding between service members and civilians.
Goat in the Road became interested in the subject of military service because members of the company have relatives in the armed forces. A couple of scenes come from the experiences of a special forces soldier related to one of the performers. The company first reached out to veterans two years ago to develop the piece.
"The only way to do it right was to have meaningful partnerships with people who would give us the go ahead," says writer/director Christopher Kaminstein. "We met with veterans and interviewed vets. We looked for people who would come to rehearsal and see runs of the show and say, 'Yes, that feels accurate to me, this is useful.'"
They solicited stories as well as anonymous feedback and realized there weren't simple answers to who enlists and what active or veteran members of the military want.
"Whatever you think a veteran is, it's so much more complicated than that," Kaminstein says. "The military is full of every type of person you can imagine."
Service members shared stories, including many of the mundane aspects far from the battlefield.
Exploring the meaning of "service" became a core part of the story.
"That word means something essential," Kaminstein says. "I 'served.' I did that. I had little control over what I was supposed to do. I put my trust in the government and people of the U.S. to give me a task, and I carried it out."
In exchanges with veterans during development of the work, the phrase "Thank you for your service" came up.
"Some veterans like (when people say it), and some think it's an empty platitude," Kaminstein says. "One woman said she always wants to ask, 'What is it you think I did?'"