Area veterans take part in ‘Telling Project’
America’s military personnel have found themselves in harm’s way in Afghanistan and Iraq for the last 16 years, their battlefield experiences documented for the home front through video, pictures and the written word.
But what they face upon returning home, reintegrating into society and building a life outside the military may be a mystery to nonveterans and those without close friends and family who have served.
First-person accounts of life, the military and combat have been brought to audiences around the state since 2015 through the Florida
Humanities Council’s “Telling Project” in which veterans outline their experiences in their own words through dramatic stage presentations.
Audiences in Lee and Collier counties will be able to partake of those stories for the first time through “Telling: Southwest Florida.” The program will be presented Saturday and Sunday, April 29-30, at the David and Cecile Wang Opera Center in Naples and Thursday, May 4, at in the WGCU Public Media studios on the campus of Florida Gulf Coast University.
“Telling: Southwest Florida” features veterans from Lee and Collier counties who will recount their military experiences, including traumas and struggles with PTSD for some, and their personal journeys after they returned to civilian life.
“The audience can expect to hear about real experiences from Iraq, Vietnam and the Cold War,” Steven Seibert, FHC executive director, says. “They will hear their pride, their heartbreak and their hopes.”
Audience members will be able to ask questions after the performance.
Prior “Telling Project” programs in other parts of the state have been deeply powerful and moving experiences, Mr. Seibert says. He adds the fact that fewer and fewer Americans have experienced battle since the advent of all-volunteer military service heightens the importance of the “Telling Project.”
“During the Second World War, virtually every family in the nation had someone involved in the war effort,” he says. “That percentage decreased during Vietnam and even more so in our recent efforts in the Middle East. What veterans now experience when they return home is a total lack of understanding from their community.”
The five servicemen participating in “Telling: Southwest Florida” include post-9/11 Iraq veterans of combat infantry and military police, as well as a Vietnam War medic and a veteran who served during the Cold War.
Jason Calabrese of Naples, an English professor at Florida SouthWestern State College, is among them. He served in the U.S. Army from 2002 to 2005 and was deployed with the 1st Infantry Division in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom II. Mr. Calabrese was completing his second master’s degree at Long Island University when 9/11 occurred
“I lived a privileged life in academia and never truly appreciated the sacrifices others had made for my liberties,” he says. “September 11th was a wake-up call. I felt compelled to enlist afterward and served three years and three months, with 15 of those months in Iraq.”
After a four-year hiatus — to get married, find a civilian job and start a family — he returned to serve as a Florida National Guard Reservist.
Mr. Calabrese received two Army Commendation Medals and the Combat Infantry Badge for his service in Iraq.
“I liken the combat experience to getting my wisdom teeth removed,” he says. “It’s something I’ll never regret doing, but I would never care to do it again — although I will if I’m re-deployed.”
He struggled with the adjustment when he returned to civilian life, but he says a strong support network made all the difference as he re-acclimated. “Having loved ones and hopes and dreams waiting back home gives you something worth fighting to return to. It keeps you tethered to reality in a surreal environment like that.”
Mr. Calabrese intends to simply tell audiences what he has experienced.
“All I can do is offer my perspective on the events and relay the feelings and thoughts I had at the time and my reflections on it all these years later,” he says. “Some of it’s funny, some of it’s sad, but I’d like to think it’s an interesting story.”
Like Mr. Calabrese, Naples resident Joseph Cofield is a U.S. Army veteran, but his service took place during the Cold War, from 1976 to 1997. The retired educator, who taught history, economics and World Cultures at Bonita Springs Middle School, spent 14 years stationed in Germany, near the border with the former East Germany.
“As many times as we prepared for war at any second, you can’t get any closer than that, aside from combat. I was fortunate I didn’t have to go combat, but I came close many times,” he said.
Today, Mr. Cofield is the founder and operator of the Constitution Project, a nonprofit that strives to get a copy of the U.S. Constitution into the hands of every fifth-grade student in Florida. He’s taking part in “Telling: Southwest Florida” to discuss how his military service made possible the dreams of a boy from a small town who wanted to attend college and becoming a teacher.
“I want people to know that you don’t have to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth to have dreams that come true,” Mr. Cofield says. “I was just a little kid from North Carolina, but it was my dream that hard work and pursuit of education could get you a lot of places.
“In the military, you can work hard, move up in rank and make more money. And you get to meet new people, your mind can be expanded and wonderful things happen.” The military also allowed him to earn his associate’s and bachelor’s degrees while on duty.
Timothy Durham spent 1976 through 1983 as a reconnaissance scout with the U.S. Army’s 5th Infantry Division and 101st Airborne Division. After 9/11 he joined the Florida National Guard and was deployed to Iraq in 2005 with the 651st Military Police Company. He received the Bronze Star for meritorious service as squad leader of a platoon that transported Iraqi detainees.
A resident of Bonita Springs and a graduate of the Florida State University College of Law, Mr. Durham is executive manager of corporate business operations for Collier County.
He learned about “Telling: Southwest Florida” from a Collier County commissioner.
“I think it’s a good thing,” he says about giving veterans the opportunity to share their stories. “I just thought this would be a great way to share the experience … It’s a pleasant and cathartic experience, sharing. I don’t know why, but it is.”
For more information about “Telling: Southwest Florida,” visit https://floridahumanities.org/programs/veterans/the-tellingproject/telli.... ¦