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For veterans, it’s all in the telling

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Alex Mallory, center, directing Bob Rattcliff, left, and Dave Clark at a rehearsal for ‘The Telling Project,’ to be performed on Shelter Island this weekend.
CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO | Alex Mallory, center, directing Bob Rattcliff, left, and Dave Clark at a rehearsal for ‘The Telling Project,’ to be performed on Shelter Island this weekend.

On Saturday, November 7, a group of local veterans and military family members will stand before an audience and share their raw, sometimes funny and often heartbreaking stories of service and sacrifice in the U.S. military.

Called “The Telling Project,” and just in time for Veterans Day, it’s much more than the sum of its seven parts.

Each individual relates a unique experience, but the power of the theatrical event is the way all the stories become part of a bigger narrative — the reality of military service in our time. Performances on Shelter Island, Sag Harbor and Southampton are produced in partnership with the Telling Project, the Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.

The performers are not actors; the words they speak are their own. The script is the work of  the Telling Project writer Max Raynerd, who listened to and recorded each veteran and family member’s story. Working from many hours of recordings, Mr. Raynerd created speaking roles for each cast member.

Combined, they form a 90-minute dramatization that packs an emotional wallop.

Melissa Mundy, who has provided fundraising and event management guidance to the Theinert Memorial Fund since its inception, is the moving force behind bringing the Telling Project to Shelter Island. More than one participant said without Ms. Mundy’s vision, the project would not have gone forward.

The Island participants are Dave Clark, who served with the Marines during the Gulf War, and Dr. Frank Kestler, who served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan. Dr. Kestler is the stepfather of the Island’s Army 1st Lieutenant Joseph Theinert, killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010.

Four participants come from Sag Harbor: Bob Rattcliff, a Marine in Vietnam; Chris Stone who served with the Navy in Beirut; Katherine Mitchell, a military parent and Sag Harbor-based therapist who works with veterans; and JoAnn Lyles whose son, Marine Corps Lance Corporal Jordan Christian Haerter, was killed in action in Ramadi, Iraq in 2008.

In 2010, Dr. Kestler was in the Army Reserve when Joey Theinert was killed during combat operations in Southern Afghanistan. Frank decided he would try to go to Kandahar, to the place where Joey was killed, but he didn’t tell his family of his plans. He came home with a bit of earth from the place where Joey died and was going to tell his family the story of his journey. But the loss was too recent and they were not all ready to hear it.

Eventually, Dr. Kestler did tell his story and came to see the telling as part of his and his family’s healing. “Through shared experiences, healing takes place,” Dr. Kestler said. “That’s one way we can honor Joey, by continuing his mission of taking care of his men.”

Like any dramatic performance, the Telling Project requires rehearsals. Unlike most rehearsals, these are sometimes halted by overwhelming emotion, especially when JoAnn Lyles summons the strength to tell the story of her son Jordan’s life and service and what it meant to lose him.

Dave Clark, commander of the Island’s American Legion Mitchell Post, was in Beirut at the time of the terrorist bombing of the American barracks and lost his entire chain of command in the attack.
Chris Stone lives in Sag Harbor and has deep ties to Shelter Island. Working for South Ferry, he’s a familiar face to many Islanders. Mr. Stone served in Beirut at about the same time as Mr. Clark.

For some time after coming home, Mr. Stone said he didn’t think of himself as a veteran. “I came home unscathed,” he said. “I considered a veteran someone who had closer contact with combat than I did, someone who was injured or lost their lives.”

Mr. Stone described the day he met a classmate of his son’s in the grocery store and noticed she was wearing dog tags that had belonged to her brother who had been killed in action in Iraq. He vowed to march in his dress whites in an upcoming parade to honor her brother, an act that gave new meaning to his identity as a veteran and led to his involvement with the Telling Project.

Katherine Mitchell was a drug and alcohol counselor when she began working with a veteran who walked into her office. “It took me about two weeks of talking to him to recognize that if I was going to be of any help to him, I had to get myself educated,” Ms. Mitchell said.

Although Ms. Mitchell’s son was in the Navy, she realized she didn’t understand enough about the transition out of the military. She did some research, found out about the value of peer support and joined the Telling Project.

Originally one of the organizers of the event, Ms. Mitchell became a participant when writer Max Raynerd saw her story as an important way to connect service experiences with the transition to civilian life. “The purpose of this is not therapeutic, “ Ms. Mitchell, “and yet it has enormous therapeutic value.”

Director Alex Mallory came to the Telling Project through the Veteran Artist Program, a nonprofit organization that has produced a number of Telling Project performances. “The amazing thing about this process is the community and the shared experience between them,” Ms. Mallory said.

She noted that this production is different from the others she’s worked on because most of the veterans and family members who were chosen to participate knew each other before they got involved. “These are very difficult experiences,” she said. “Even in the first reading of this script, there was a feeling of empathy in the room. We had to pass a box of tissues around the room.”

Ms. Mallory described a second goal of the Telling Project performances. “We are bringing out these stories not just as individual stories or tragedies, but as part of the landscape of the community,” she said. “Especially in a place like this where people know about Joey. To put it into the larger context of the Island and how much beautiful energy is being put toward his memory.”

It’s impossible not to be moved by the Telling Project, even without a direct personal connection to one of the participants or even to someone in the military. “These are our words,” said Mr. Stone. “First-person experiences.”

Performances of the Telling Project are free and open to the public but require an RSVP at JJTMF.org.

The Saturday, November 7 performance at Perlman Music Program’s Shore Road campus is wait-listed, but seats are still available at performances on November 8 at the Southampton Cultural Center and on November 19 at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.

Also planned are two high school assemblies at the Shelter Island School on Friday, November 6 and Pierson in Sag Harbor on November 13.