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A multimedia theatrical production tries to make sense of Iraq -- by relying on the voices of those who have been there


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Photo courtesy of Jeff Swensen
Jeffrey Carpenter (left) and Iraq war veteran Shawn Bronson

No doubt the drive from Baghdad Airport is more perilous. But driving through New Kensington with Jeff Carpenter offers at least a whiff of danger.

Carpenter, the artistic director of Bricolage Theatre Company, is trying to find the home of Cpl. James Stuck. Periodically he's also on his cell phone, talking about the set design on the production of Key to the Field, which his experimental theater group is launching in less than a week. During one of these calls, he runs at least one red light, apparently without noticing.

With battle-tested cameraperson Anita Harnish riding in the back seat, we pass through what Carpenter calls "a Deer Hunter landscape" of molting industrial sheds, occasional condemned buildings, and a home hosting a weekly "End Times Conference." And although time isn't running that short for Carpenter, things are getting hairy.

In just a few weeks, he will unveil In Service: Authentic Narrative From Iraq to Pittsburgh, a multi-media production based on the recollections of local veterans returning from Iraq. The work, slated to premiere at the Harris Theater on Oct. 4, is a cooperative effort between Bricolage and Pittsburgh Filmmakers. But just three weeks before the show opens, Carpenter still isn't entirely sure what it will consist of.

For starters, he's still gathering material: We are on our way to interview Stuck, who lost much of his right leg in Iraq and whom Carpenter has been trying to reach for nearly six months. "What am I going to do?" asks Carpenter. "Tell him, 'Sorry, you're too late'?"

And though Stuck's interview will be videotaped, this isn't a conventional documentary. In Service will also incorporate live testimonials from Americans who've been in Iraq, along with still images provided by troops and culled from an exhibit of war photographs at the Filmmakers gallery. "It's my first foray into this kind of thing," admits Carpenter, who has a hard time defining the production. "It's not a play, exactly. A docudrama, maybe?"

While the show is backed by a handful of local foundations, including the Sprout Fund, financial support was a hard sell early on. "It's been hard for the same reasons it was hard to get soldiers to start talking," Carpenter says. "Immediately, they see the potential for being political. That's the most difficult thing to dance around."

Carpenter acknowledges having "volatile feelings" about the war himself, and he knows firsthand about the divisions it can cause. One of the show's live participants will be his brother, Scott: As a State Department official, Scott Carpenter served with the interim Coalition Provisional Authority, where he acted as a liaison to various political factions. (After Saddam Hussein was captured, it was Carpenter who brought Sunni, Shiite and Kurd leaders to meet the former dictator face-to-face.)

So "instead of me taking a position" on the war, Carpenter says, "it's about letting people talk for themselves. I'm trying to just stick with the stories.

"For me, this project stands outside the political debate," Carpenter adds.

Which is just where Stuck wants to be, as we discover after finding his mother's home, and setting up the camera near a tiny grape arbor in the backyard.

Stuck, whose military haircut has grown out into a tousled mane, tells the camera he joined the Army because he couldn't hack college: "There were too many things coming at me all at once," he says. He was attached to the 101st Airborne division and deployed to Kirkuk in October 2005. He was trained to fire a mortar, a weapon for which there was little use in an urban environment. Instead, his unit began chauffeuring around engineers and other reconstruction teams -- an assignment he describes as "fun."


"[I]t's kind of sick in a way," Stuck admits. "It's a constant adrenaline rush. ... There's nothing you can compare it to -- just going down the street, thinking you're going to get blown up." It is, he adds, even better than snowboarding.

And Stuck did get blown up -- three months after he arrived in Iraq, his Humvee ran over an IED. Stuck's leg was shattered in the attack; another member of his unit lost his arm.

His mother has a framed collection of news stories written about her son -- Carpenter first learned of Stuck from a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review piece -- which detail the agony of recovering from a shattered leg. But today, Stuck seems to regard his missing leg the way the rest of us might think about an old sports injury: It's a pain in the ass, something to be mindful of before exerting yourself, but nothing that's going to cramp your style. On airplane flights, he says, Stuck removes the artificial leg, and uses the socket -- located just below the knee -- as a cup holder.

"I was 21 years old; this was three weeks before my birthday," he recalls. "I'm like, 'This sucks; I want to walk.' ... [F]ive weeks later, I was on skis."

Harnish gets some footage of Stuck's artificial leg -- he has a product-endorsement deal with the manufacturer, he tells us -- but that wasn't the only adjustment he's had to make. In Iraq, he learned to be wary of everything: "That's what will save your life; that's what will save your friend's life." And now even at pool halls, he says, he catches himself wondering, "Why is [that guy] walking around the table towards me?"

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Sergeant Daniel Connerly
Still, it's clear Stuck isn't going to write anguished poetry about what happened to him; ask him for his take on the war and he shrugs. "I don't really have an opinion on it," he says. Then again, if he spent all his time introspecting about the horror of war, he might still be in Walter Reed Army Medical Center (where, by the way, he says the care was great despite what you may have heard. "I had a blast when I was there," he says. "Granted, I was missing a leg ...")

Not long afterward, it's time to leave.

"We could do the whole thing on him," Carpenter says wistfully as we drive off. "It's a shame that we can't get him live for the show." But by that point, Stuck will be long gone -- headed to Oklahoma, where he is in training to make the track team for next year's Paralympic Games in Beijing.

Stuck's resilience is both remarkable and typical, Carpenter says. "The majority of people we've interviewed fall in the 'no regrets' category." Many of them, like Stuck, see their service largely as a job -- and thus as something one can take pride in.

Carpenter adds that most soldiers say they'd feel guilty not going to war -- since the guys in their unit would be going without them. Accompanying that loyalty to each other is a willingness to do what they are told. "It's mindblowing to me," says Carpenter. "It's not a party line, but once you walk through that gate, you stop questioning it."

In the back seat, Harnish adds, "As a civilian, I can't get my mind around that."

On one of the screens of Ralph Vituccio's editing console, Carpenter's interview subjects stammer and go through fast-forward seizures. Vittucio shuffles through segments, looking for the right one, and occasionally slowing down for a few seconds at a time -- long enough for snippets of memory to come through:

"... my mission was to ..."

" ... I better shoot back or this could be my ass ..."

" ... human waste from the waist down ..."

Vituccio, multimedia director for In Service, is editing the production's video portion at the Pittsburgh Filmmakers facility in North Oakland. And he's working against a series of time pressures: The production is set to debut in less than two weeks, and Carpenter is sitting behind him, trying to arrange the material into chapters with titles like "The Call," "The New Normal" and "Action Always Finds You."

It isn't easy. The footage was shot by different camerapeople, and both picture and sound quality vary. And Carpenter, who is sitting behind Vituccio, keeps remembering things he wants to add. Like any actor, he has an ear for a good line, but the video portion can't run too long or else there will be no time.

"We have a lot of sections already," Vituccio cautions him.

On screen, meanwhile, John Cornetto recalls his first attempted kill as a sniper. Sounding pained, he says he's been firing guns since the age of 3, but couldn't do more than wound an Iraqi in his sights: "Why I missed this guy -- it still pisses me off," he says. Luckily, he got a chance to redeem himself: Another Iraqi appeared, and Cornetto took him down with a single shot -- which "sort of made me feel a lot better."

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Snapshot from a war: Photo taken by CNN correspondent Lisa Rose Weaver when she was an embedded reporter in Iraq
Vituccio stops the tape. He's worried, he says, by the impression viewers might get from seeing this clip in isolation.

"Does it make him look -- I mean, this is war. If we see it out of that context, does it make him look flippant? Does it make him sound like a stone-cold killer?"

"He's a rather flippant guy," replies Carpenter. (Later on the tape, Cornetto defines "happiness" as "not dealing with Iraqis. Not a big fan of them.") But the point, he says, is to show all the ambiguities of war.

"I don't want to make these guys look bad," Vituccio says.

"If I was in a war," Carpenter replies, "I'd want it to be with John."

"I think it should be in there," Vituccio says. "I just want to think it through."

And for the next several hours, that's what they do, seeking to compress hours of interviews, trying to distill the whole range of emotions.

Relief: One of the two female vets in the film, Capt. Danielle DiBacco, tears up as she says that everyone in her unit came home safely. "You get emotional about it, because as a company commander, all those soldiers are your family."

Zeal: "I've never felt closer to being alive than when I was in a gunfight," Sgt. Shawn Bronson tells the camera. "We were just in the moment with life."

Pride: Staff Sgt. Lance Clark recalls raiding terrorist camps. "[T]hese guys don't quit," he says. "These are the type of people who want Americans dead.

"People seem to forget that we were attacked first," Clark says elsewhere in the tape.

"I like this part, because everyone in the audience is going to go, 'Wooooaaaaah,'" Carpenter says.

But by the time Vituccio and Carpenter call it an evening four hours later, it's still not certain that Clark's quote will be in the final product. The video, after all, is just one portion of the work. There's also the live performance, which will be handled by different vets on different nights. The idea is to structure the video portion in a "modular" format; the chapters can be shuffled from night to night, depending on who shows up live.

Meanwhile, two other projection screens will be used at the same time, flashing up other images. Some will be shot by professional reporters: Work by photojournalist Chris Hondros, whose front-line images are currently featured in the Pittsburgh Filmmakers exhibit Grave and Deteriorating. Others are images taken of, and by, the veterans themselves.

"I've got this guy's X-rays," Carpenter says as Vituccio watches Stuck talk about his injury. Fumbling around for it, Carpenter reaches into a grocery bag and pulls out a cassette.

"I don't even know where this came from," he says. They pop it in the player, and the screen shows a couple of American troops on a rooftop, setting up a sniper post.

"Is this a reenactment?" one of us asks.

"I think this is the real deal, dude," says Vituccio.

Despite the challenge of choreographing all this material, a multimedia presentation may be the most fitting way to recount the Iraq war. This is, after all, the most mediated conflict in human history.

During Vietnam, most Americans watched the war on TV, experiencing it as a series of images. In Iraq, that's often how the soldiers experience it, too. It's not just the smart bombs or helicopter gunsights, either. Everyone, it seems, has a camera: Even as Stuck was being medevac-ed away from his still-smoldering Humvee, the guys in his unit were taking pictures of the wreckage. Stuck himself says that when he regained consciousness at an Army hospital in Germany, the first thing he did was ask doctors to take his picture. (He had to write the request down, of course: He was still on a respirator at the time.)

Images can even become ammunition: In one taped segment, Bronson recalls visiting an insurgent Web site -- and watching from the perspective of an enemy's camera as a member of his unit got gunned down.

 But while the medium may change, In Service reminds us that war's content remains the same.

Rob Ploskunak tells the story of being on "sniper overwatch" -- covering U.S. troops through the scope of his rifle in case insurgents appear. He watched as a bomb-removal crew cleared a street below, and as a sergeant picked up a car battery from the street to dispose of it.

"Evidently, the battery was attached to a roadside bomb," Ploskunak says. "That was it. He was blown up right in front of us. That was it."

He's not looking at the camera. The tape spools on in silence, then goes dark.

Carpenter recalls taping the interview. "Everyone in the room was frozen," he says. "It felt like the earth was going to open up."

"When you're in a situation like Iraq, you see such a small part of it," recalls Lisa Rose Weaver, who was a CNN correspondent during the early days of the invasion, and who will be a live participant in In Service. "Being a journalist on the ground is like looking through a scope: You see so little."

The same could be said for the soldiers, and to some extent, for any documentary that relies on firsthand experience. In Service, for example, features no Iraqi voices; as with so much else about the U.S. occupation, the Iraqis themselves will be little more than a backdrop, an offstage presence in a purely American drama.

And while the In Service cast includes a couple of African-American soldiers and a few women, the voices of white males predominate.

Still, differing perspectives have crept into the effort, sometimes to the surprise of Carpenter himself. There's no telling what veterans may choose to reveal, even in the case of someone like Sgt. Helen Gerhardt, a National Guard member who has written in depth about her experience. (She is now in the University of Pittsburgh's creative non-fiction program.) Just as Carpenter and a co-interviewer, Jen Saffron, were wrapping up their interview with Gerhardt, she disclosed that while in Iraq, she got involved with another woman.

As Carpenter and Saffron exchanged surprised glances, Gerhardt added, "All I needed to do was say ... 'I'm having sex with a woman,' and I would have been out. All the dilemmas would have disappeared. But they wouldn't have." And anyway, "There is no reason someone else should risk their lives instead of me." It would have been "ridiculous for me to use my relationship ... to get out of my service."

The problem, though, is trying to make a coherent production out of something as incoherent as war. Gerhardt has other stories to tell -- she drove trucks in supply convoys across the country, and her unit supplied the notorious Abu Ghraib prison -- but most of them simply can't be used. There's not enough time.

"My hope is that we can give a broad spectrum" of perspectives on the war, Carpenter says. "But I'm not sure how much we can do that in this first effort." He already has plans to morph In Service into other forms. Vituccio could, for example, make a full-length film documentary just from the interview portions that will end up on the cutting-room floor.

And for now, perhaps a scattershot approach to an Iraq documentary makes the most sense. As the participants make clear, a scattershot approach defined the war itself.

Weaver, for example, was attached to a Patriot missile battery, sent into the Iraqi desert to contend with a chemical-warfare threat that never materialized. Conversely, the troops feared they didn't have enough guns to protect themselves if a ground threat materialized. "For the most part, the troops didn't know what they were in for," Weaver says. "And neither did I."

The only time her unit was attacked on its sprint toward Baghdad, she says, was a friendly-fire incident in which a bomb dropped by a U.S. fighter jet narrowly missed its base. And thanks to a computer error, the first time the battery actually fired a missile, it brought down a U.S. jet.

Weaver herself left Iraq shortly after the fall of Baghdad. But even then, she says, it was obvious that "the security in Baghdad was very clearly unresolved. It was clear to everybody that the troops were in over their head. There weren't enough of them, and they were so jumpy."

Now that she's back in the States -- today she works at Chatham University, teaching broadcast media -- Weaver's views on Iraq have crystallized. It is, she says, a "horrible mistake to be there," and the experience of seeing it unfold "has hardened me. I have less tolerance for an America that doesn't want to know. 'We want to feel good about being there; there must be a way of feeling good about being there.' Well, maybe it's not good to be there." (As for soldiers' complaints that reporters focus too much on the bad news, and not on the positive developments, Weaver says, "That analysis might have held more water in the early part of the conflict, when it wasn't clear that we have a civil war going on." But as security worsened, she says, "You're not going to take the risk of being blown up to cover the opening of a health center.")

Taken together, the soldiers are more mixed in their views. Some, like Clark, are true believers; others, like Stuck, see Iraq as a job assignment. A few, like Gerhardt, see it as a moral and political catastrophe. Yet she, too, can sound ambivalent.

"We have been possessed by what we thought we were defeating," Gerhardt says on tape. "We possessed the jails, [and] the jails possessed us." She recounts seeing ill-treatment of Iraqis by U.S. soldiers, and at one point confesses to feeling "like a Nazi, by going along with this."

But eventually, Gerhardt did speak out, and officers did take steps to address disciplinary lapses. And despite everything, she's thinking of re-upping. "I do think with [Gen. David] Petraeus in charge, things are turning around in some ways." The brass, she believes, is less blinkered by ideology, paying more attention to circumstances on the ground. What's more, she says, the United States has a responsibility -- which means she has a responsibility -- to help undo the damage it has done.

If you're wondering whether that's even possible, In Service doesn't have an answer. Instead, it offers a chance "just to hear our stories," says Sgt. Daniel Connerly. "Hear us tell it the way we experienced it. Because everything over there is scripted." Even when reporters did interviews, "The first thing [superiors] tell you is, 'Don't divulge anything, don't make us look bad.' How do you do that and tell the truth?"

Connerly will be participating in person, so he can finally tell his story straight. And the truth, he says, is that no one in his unit was prepared for Iraq. In one story he is planning to tell In Service audiences, the 75-person tent he slept in burned down one night -- along with all the belongings of the troops inside. The cause of the blaze? An electrical short which spread because the tent was soaked in kerosene -- the closest thing the unit had to bug spray. "My unit wasn't necessarily prepared," Connerly says dryly.

And after the blaze, they were even less ready. With their belongings in ashes, soldiers had to wear civilian clothes, hand-me-downs, whatever they could find: "We looked like the goof troop," he says.

There are less amusing stories, one involving the abduction and murder of two men in his unit: "The only thing we found were some bullet casings and some blood." Connerly says he has been counseled for post-traumatic stress, and he won't be talking about a lot of what he can remember. "If my mom ever knew what I've seen, she would lose it," he says. (He still has a brother stationed in Iraq.) But he says life looks better now that he has opened up about his experiences. An Arkansas native, Connerly is working in a Pittsburgh restaurant, and is planning to open up his own place someday. He's working out every day, and he's quit smoking -- a habit he acquired in Iraq.

For Connerly, six years after 9/11 -- "the reason I went to Iraq" -- seems like a good time to start "this whole new me that I'm trying to get started.

"This show is an outlet for us," he says. "To tell how outraged we were that we were there. And how we didn't know what we were doing."

In Service: Authentic Narrative From Iraq to Pittsburgh. Oct. 4-7 and 11-14, all shows at 8 p.m. Harris Theater, Downtown. Tickets are $24, call 412-456-6666 or online at