Something else made this war different for Americans: women in combat. This became clear within days of the invasion of Iraq, on March 23, 2003, when a unit of the 507th Maintenance Company made a wrong turn near Nasiriyeh and was ambushed. Americans became familiar with Jessica Lynch, who was wounded and captured in the ambush. Less media attention was paid to Shoshana Johnson, Lynch’s Panamanian-born comrade who was also captured (and later released), or to Lori Piestewa, a Hopi soldier who tried to drive her Humvee (in which Lynch was a passenger) to safety and became the first female service member killed in Iraq.
Between 2001 and 2013, 300,000 female service members were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan: 11% of US forces. More than 130 women have died in the two conflicts and more than 800 have been wounded. Two have received the Silver Star, the third-highest medal for valor. As the website of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans of America explains, “Although excluded from official ‘combat roles,’ there is no clear front line in the current conflicts. Many female troops in Iraq and Afghanistan have been exposed to direct fire while serving in support roles...Even those who don’t travel outside the security perimeter of a military base are constantly threatened by mortars and rockets. As one female veteran put it, ‘Life in Iraq and Afghanistan is combat.’” Compounding this is a perception on the part of many civilians that women “don’t serve.” Stories from female veterans of being ignored or assumed to be a girlfriend, sometimes while male soldiers who haven’t deployed are being bought drinks for their “service,” are common.
Trying to capture even a small fragment of the experience of deploying and returning from Iraq and Afghanistan is a daunting task. On the one hand, much of the experience of combat and its aftermath has not changed since the beginning of recorded history: the experiences of Achilles, Ajax, Odysseus, and Penelope continue to speak to contemporary warriors and their families. On the other hand, as veterans stressed to us in our earliest interviews, every veteran’s story is different. The range of experiences is well-documented: the wars of the last 13 years have produced a number of first-rate memoirs and reportage, as well as some very good poems, fiction, and yes, plays (both by veterans and civilians).
As David Finkel writes in his recent book Thank You For Your Service, the men and women who fought have become soldiers, Marines, and sailors for a wide range of reasons: “because they were patriotic or starry-eyed or heartbroken or maybe just out of work.” They are male, female, transgendered; straight, gay; high school dropouts and holders of graduate degrees. They come from all ethnicities and the full spectrum of political belief. Their experience returning has had similar diversity. Finkel points out that “two million Americans were sent to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. Home now, most of them describe themselves as physically and mentally healthy. They move forward. Their war recedes. Some are even stronger for the experience.” Many veterans see themselves as part of a new “greatest generation,” and our limited experience has connected us to young people whose devotion to service and community is genuinely awe-inspiring.
Don Juan Comes Home from Iraq is the result of two years of development, beginning with a conversation between Paula Vogel and Blanka Zizka during a playwriting “boot camp” led by Ms. Vogel in January 2011, where they discovered a mutual love of the Weimar Era playwright Ödön von Horvath. The conversation continued when Ms. Vogel spoke on the Wilma stage with her protégée Sarah Ruhl during the run of In the Next Room. This led to a decision, months later, to write a new play inspired by Horvath’s Don Juan Comes Home From the War. What followed was a process very unusual in the American theater: months of conversations between the artistic collaborators expanded to include encounters with veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan in interviews and playwriting workshops led by Ms. Vogel in Philadelphia, DC, and New York; the play was cast nearly a year ago, at a point when only a few pages of text existed, and the full script grew out of work with the actors in two workshops. During the December workshop, Paula and Blanka sat down for a conversation about the project. Here is the full transcript:
Rehearsals have begun! On Friday, February 14, playwright Paula Vogel and director Blanka Zizka conducted the first read-thru of the World Premiere play DON JUAN COMES HOME FROM IRAQ. In the Wilma's lobby, the 9 actors jumped into the exciting new script with a captive audience of Wilma artists, staff, and guests.