(This is Part I of a two-part series and ran in the February 8, 2018 edition of the Reporter. The second installment will appear in the February 15, 2018 edition.)
The stories of the men and women who deploy with the military are as varied as the individuals themselves and the conflicts in which they serve.
But often the issues and intricacies of military life are not something that people outside the armed services can easily understand. Enter The Telling Project, a national non-profit organization that brings the experience of veterans to the stage in order to deepen civilian understanding of the military and its personnel. Since 2014, the Joseph J. Theinert Memorial Fund (JJTMF), which was created in honor of 1st Lt. Theinert after he was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010, has been partnering with The Telling Project to put local veterans and Gold Star family members in front of East End audiences to share their stories.
On Friday, February 16, four Shelter Island veterans — Howard Jackson (Army) who served in WWII; Jim Colligan (Army), a Bronze Star recipient who served in Vietnam; and Michael (Zack) Mundy and Tom Spotteck, who both served as Marines in Afghanistan — and Chrys Kestler, Gold Star Mother of Joe Theinert, will appear at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor to share their stories. The piece will also be presented to students at the Shelter Island School.
Part theater, part monologue, while it may technically be considered a performance, Ms. Kestler notes that these participants are not actors. Rather, they are real veterans with stories of very real conflicts who are opening up to share memories of what it was like to serve in action. Sometimes the language and the details can be pretty rough.
“I’ve believed for a very long time, the more you can share an experience the more healing for yourself that can take place,” Ms. Kestler said in a recent phone interview. “You never know who else might get help. I believe the only way to feel better is to get into service for others.”
The veterans’ stories were recorded last summer by representatives from The Telling Project. Last Sunday, three of them — Mr. Colligan, Mr. Mundy and Mr. Spotteck — met in the chorus room at the Shelter Island School to rehearse their stories, which have been transformed into scripts.
Sharing these stories can be a difficult process, particularly for the younger participants for whom active duty is a relatively recent memory. Coaching the veterans is Melissa Mundy who works with JJTMF and helps them work through the process.
Ms. Mundy is also the sister of Zack Mundy, who received special parental permission to enlist at age 17. He was finishing basic training in June 2010 when Joe Theinert was killed and he deployed to Afghanistan just days after his 18th birthday.
In his piece, Mr. Mundy, 25, talks about his time in the Garmsir District of Afghanistan in the southern part of Helmand Province, sharing details of how patrols operate and the difficulties of keeping oneself clean in a remote area.
He also recalls the time his platoon came across a big yellow jug in the road that they suspected contained an IED (improvised explosive device). The explosive ordinance disposal team was contacted, but wouldn’t come to the scene unless the Marines confirmed it was, in fact, an IED.
“One of the Afghan police tried to shoot it with an AK,” said Mr. Mundy. “We said, ‘No, look for wires.’ Then they kicked the jug … it was empty.”
“In our first week in Afghanistan, we found five IEDs,” said Mr. Mundy during a break in rehearsal. “We thought it might be a kinetic environment — then there was nothing for five months,” he said. “We were just sitting and waiting for something to happen.”
It’s difficult to establish routines in an unpredictable environment and Mr. Mundy found that waiting for something to happen — or not —was a great cause of stress.
“My base was in the middle of nowhere. We would have to go and search vehicles and you don’t know if there’s a bomb in the car,” he said.
But perhaps the biggest adjustment for Mr. Mundy came after he returned home to Shelter Island.
“I moved back into my parents’ house and had rules,” he said. “I went to Suffolk Community College for a year, but it was just too much. I had people asking me to buy them beer every day in class. The maturity level there was beneath me.”
These days, Mr. Mundy works on North Ferry as a deck hand and he’s in the process of getting his captain’s license. He’s also newly engaged to Shelby Willumsen, a fellow member of the Shelter Island Class of 2010.
“She brought me back in once we started living together,” he said. “I like it quiet. I enjoy going hunting and fishing or just sitting in the woods. I think we’re sticking around here.”
Tom Spotteck, 29, grew up surrounded by military personnel. His father was a Navy man and the family moved often to wherever the Navy sent them. Mr. Spotteck received a special release from high school to join the Marines and, like Mr. Mundy, was deployed to Garmsir in Afghanistan. But his unit was there in 2008, before any others.
“When we went in, it was untreaded territory,” explained Mr. Spotteck during a break in rehearsals. “We established bases and worked with the Afghan police to clear out the Taliban. At first it was just us … when we went in, the people kind of fled.”
After 30 days, the Marines had cleared the city of Taliban and the families began to return, though some Taliban members also slipped back in.
In February 2010, while on his second deployment to Afghanistan, Mr. Spotteck was flown by helicopter to the city of Marjah, again, with orders to clear it of Taliban. His unit was dropped near what was suspected to be Taliban headquarters and this time, they encountered heavy fire. One of his closest friends, a medic, was hit by shrapnel.
“This is the single scariest moment of my life,” Mr. Spotteck says in his script, adding that Doc, as he was called, was one of his closest friends. “I was a groomsman in his wedding, and here we are, in the middle of a field in Afghanistan. My first casualty.”
Doc survived, but other casualties and several deaths followed.
“Marjah took a physical and mental toll on me,” Mr. Spotteck says in the script. “The fight there never seemed to stop.”
As he was nearing the end of his second deployment, Mr. Spotteck was offered a generous package to reenlist for a third time. Despite being a lifelong military man, his father begged him not to.
Then Mr. Spotteck learned of Joey Theinert’s death.
“I think that is what really finally decided it for me,” Mr. Spotteck says in his script. “I’ve seen it all, I’ve got stories to tell, it’s time to move on.”
Moving on included getting back into the rhythm of civilian life — something he admits didn’t come easily.
“Suddenly, you come out of the military and it’s like you’re still a kid,” said Mr. Spotteck. “Starting college, you don’t feel 22 or 23 because you’re sitting next to 18-year olds.”
Though Mr. Spotteck began classes at Suffolk, he soon transferred to Washington State University where, thanks to the G.I. Bill, he earned Bachelor of Science degrees in both viticulture and encology (fermentation science specializing in wine production). For the past two years, he has worked as a winemaker at Lenz Vineyards. His girlfriend Amira Lisle who he says he “imported from Washington,” works for another North Fork winery.
“She was my chemistry tutor,” Mr. Spotteck admitted.
When asked if his time in Afghanistan is something he thinks about often or discusses regularly with others, Mr. Spotteck responded, “This the first time I’ve publicly spoken about it. My girlfriend will hear it for the first time. It brings up memories you didn’t remember before.”
“I’ve moved on, I have my new life,” he added. “I fish all summer and make wine all winter … and I hope not to leave the area any time soon.”
Next week, Part II: Howard Jackson and James Colligan recall their experiences during WWII and the Vietnam War respectively. The Telling Project will be presented at the Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor on Friday, February 16 at 7 p.m. Admission is a suggested donation of $20 per person. Space is limited. To reserve, visit JJTMF.org.