Lt. Col. Scott Mann may have left the battlefield, but he didn’t leave the war behind him.
Mann retired after serving 23 years in the United States Army, 18 as a Green Beret. He specialized in unconventional, high-impact missions all over the world including Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Panama, Iraq and Afghanistan.
After serving in combat areas, he found the transition home was also filled with difficulties. For many veterans, those home-front battles include PTSD and other mental health issues, changed family roles, broken relationships, and drug and alcohol abuse.
“It’s a dark place and a tough transition. You (take it) from the battlefront to the living room,” he told host Lori Walsh this week on South Dakota Public Broadcasting’s “In The Moment” program.
Mann felt driven to share his feelings and experiences, even if it brought great pain. He chose to write a play telling the story through the eyes of veterans, by veterans.
“It’s telling a story that’s never been told by voices that have never been heard,” he said.
The creation, “Last Out,” will be performed this weekend in Vermillion as part of a national tour. The local performances are scheduled for 8 p.m. tonight (Friday) and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Thomas H. Craig Center for the Performing Arts at Vermillion High School.
Mann purposely chose veterans or their family members for the cast. He felt they brought the emotions and experiences to the stage. The four-person cast includes two Green Berets and one paratrooper, while the fourth cast member comes from a military family.
“For the audience, this is a story about a war performed by those who live it. Whether it’s at home or on the battlefield, everything in the play is based on truth,” he said. “If we send (combat veterans) to a far-flung place, we need to understand what we’re asking them to do.”
For Mann, the timing was right for the play in more than just his experiences. He incorporates his realization that the war on terror has spanned a generation.
“My oldest son was 3 years old on 9/11. Next year, he’s going into the infantry as a lieutenant,” Mann said. “He’s going to a war that I didn’t finish. This has become a multi-generational war.”
Mann portrays Army Green Beret Danny Patton, a modern-day warrior fighting battles that range from tribal Afghanistan to his home upon his return. His war experience rips apart his family and tests his integrity and soul.
Ame Livingston directs the production and portrays the role of Lynn Patton. She has sung for Walt Disney World and has performed on many stages throughout Florida and New York. She comes from a military family, with her great-grandfather serving in World War I and all of her uncles serving in World War II.
Bryan Bachman plays the role of Caiden Patton, a post-9/11 veteran. Bachman served nearly eight years in the U.S. Army and spent the majority of his service stationed at Fort Bragg, assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division, as an airborne infantryman.
Bachman exited service in 2015 as a SSG, after having deployed in support of both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation New Dawn. He has been seen in the Playstation original series “HyperReal,” playing Jamie Carr.
Leonard Bruce plays the role of Kenny Suggins. Bruce served more than 22 years in the U.S. Army and is a former Green Beret. Upon retirement from the military, Leonard ultimately decided to take a much different route than many military retirees. He studied theater and continues his actors training.
If the storyline sounds similar to Mann’s life, it’s no coincidence.
Together with his wife, Mann founded the 501© (3) non-profit, The Heroes Journey, to help veterans tell their stories in transition. He has appeared on national television and radio programs and has written op-ed pieces for major publications.
“Last Out” brings an intense experience for its audiences. The play, two years in the making, seeks to create an awareness of the battles still fought when military members return from combat.
“The vets or families of vets are often in for a white-knuckle ride,” Mann said.
The “Last Out” performance in Vermillion was launched through the efforts of co-hosts Tresa Nygren, Angela Maibaum, Allison Naber, Wendy Wieseler and Jennifer Briest.
The local performance of “Last Out” holds its roots in a personal connection between Nygren and Mann, who met through professional leadership courses. Nygren and her husband, Marty, reside in Vermillion. Marty has served for 21 years, including three mobilizations. Marty’s most recent mission came with the 155th in 2015-16, and Tresa co-led the Family Readiness volunteers for the unit.
Tresa said she was immediately impressed upon meeting Mann.
“He is a man that wears many hats, and, overall, the best way to describe him is a genuinely good person just trying to help other people be good people,” she said. “He has worked both in the professional world and military world to help people grow and heal by connecting with others and storytelling.”
Tresa took notice when she learned about “Last Out” and plans to take the play on the road.
“When I heard he had written this play and was taking it nationally to a few locations across the U.S., I immediately jumped at the opportunity to bring it here to South Dakota. As committing to becoming a local host, we were asked to raise $30,000, find the venue and fill the seats,” she said.
“I knew Scott and the work he does and the impact he makes, so I knew this would be such an incredible opportunity not only for our veterans, but our community as well. We are a military family that has seen the first-hand impact of the cost of war to our soldiers and families and have lived through that as well.”
Marty continues serving in the military, currently as a Sergeant First Class holding the position of Environmental NCO and LNO out of Joint Forces Headquarters in Rapid City.
The Nygrens got the opportunity to see “Last Out” last January in Tampa.
“For both of us, we walked away with a different story to tell. For the first time, we saw what these deployments have done in each other’s eyes,” Tresa said. “I got a glimpse of what his struggles were and still are. I was able to understand the ‘why’ a little more.”
Mann offers a “talk back” opportunity after each show, which Tresa said was powerful at the Tampa performance.
“One soldier stood up and said, ‘I finally feel like someone understands. It’s like being in purgatory. When I am over there, I just want to be home. And when I am home, I just want to be over there,’” Tresa said.
“That hit me hard because I know for Marty that was a big struggle and to not take that guilt with him when he is in one place versus the other. I think the biggest thing people (leave) with is understanding and healing. They have done on-the-spot therapy with (a psychiatrist) after shows to help with PTSD issues and to provide resources (the audience) can take with them.”
Mann has pledged not to leave a show until the last person has departed, Tresa said. He will stay as long as necessary to meet anyone’s needs.
“Because so many of us are impacted by war, whether it be in our own homes, through work, through neighbors, through church, or just out and about in our communities, we ALL need to be opened up to the understanding,” Tresa said.
A CHANGED LIFE
For Yankton resident Briest, the war experience has become both very personal and public. Her husband, retired Sgt. Corey Briest, was serving with then-Charlie Battery of the South Dakota National Guard when his Baghad convoy was hit with improvised explosive devices in 2005. Corey suffered traumatic brain injuries along with a number of physical injuries.
Jenny became both Corey’s advocate and caregiver. She took his story, and those of other veterans needing medical care, on national programs such as “60 Minutes” and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” The Briests were also honored when author Lee Woodruff — whose husband, NBC News journalist Bob Woodruff, suffered TBI during an explosion in Iraq — spoke at a Sioux City banquet.
In addition, a national campaign raised $250,000 for the construction of a specially-designed home in Yankton suited to Corey’s accessibility needs.
Jenny quickly embraced the opportunity to bring “Last Out” to South Dakota. She saw how the play would be meaningful because of how many of the Rushmore State’s residents have been affected by the war.
“You need to let other people step into your world. We learned through Corey’s (experience) that telling your story to others makes them more aware and lets you do some healing,” she said.
“I think this play shows what these veterans and their families are going through. Every single person comes back injured by war. It might be something physical, PTSD or just trying to fit back into everyday life. For a year or more, the spouse has taken over responsibilities. Everybody else may have changed, too. Where do we all fit in?”
The open forum after the play can provide a powerful experience, Jenny said.
“After talking to Tresa, I’m looking forward to the ‘talk back’ afterwards, to see how it has impacted our community — the insights that people get and what the veterans have to say about their experiences,” she said.
“After every play, the veterans get free materials. Scott has a book out about how he’s dealing with all of it. They have mental health personnel (at the performances) to help them get through things. It’s not just about seeing and hearing a play.”
Jenny thinks the situation has improved somewhat for returning veterans, but she still sees a stigma surrounding PTSD and other mental health issues.
The play could open up all types of unexpected thoughts and emotions, she said.
“It’s better to know that talking about it makes you stronger,” she said. “You don’t know how people will react (to the play) until they see it. I have heard you have people who need to leave the audience for a time, but they return.”
Jenny supports Mann’s decision to write his own story and play a role in the production.
“The main character has power, and Scott wanted to make it right,” she said. “Telling your story is the best way to let others become aware of what you are going through.”
This weekend’s performances will also be dedicated to three area Gold Star families who lost loved ones during Charlie Battery’s mission in Iraq. The schedule calls for dedicating tonight to Greg Wagner, Saturday night to Allen Kokesh and Sunday night to Rich Schild.
An invitation was made to other Gold Star families, Jenny said.
“Last Out” has received support from Yankton native and former NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw.
He told the Press & Dakotan he supported the idea and raised money for the production. “I thought it was an excellent idea,” he said.
In the end, the community will solve the issues facing returning military members, Mann said. It’s a conversation that won’t end anytime soon, as long as men and women enter combat and face challenges when they return home, he added.
“This is something we must go through together,” he said. “We (need to) talk about how to deal with this issue we call war.”
Other national performances are scheduled for Buffalo, New York; New York City; Cincinnati; and Fayetteville, North Carolina.
For more information, visit online at www.lastoutplay.com.
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