Friday, 03 November 2017 19:26

Local Vets Find New Voices in Shakespeare

Front photo: A crowd listens intently to Stephan Wolfert on the final night of his "De-Cruit" program in Ballston Spa. In gallery photos (left to right): Veteran Steve Cipitelli reads from his prepared script; a De-Cruit particpant with Shakespeare in hand; and Wolfert offering some remarks. Photos by www.photoandgraphic.com.     

BALLSTON SPA – On a balmy Thursday night for late October, Stephan Wolfert advised everyone in the small room to act as people do after leaving a popular gambling city in Nevada, whose unofficial motto is ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.’

“We’re asking you to remember that this is part of a healing program, so hollering at the grocery store, ‘Hey! You were the one that talked about such and such.’ Not preferable,” Wolfert said. “The idea is to hold this space for the people who are coming up here to speak in front of you.”  

Wolfert, a U.S. Army veteran and positively energetic actor, was giving a few introductory remarks on the final night of his “De-Cruit” program inside the new Veterans Peer Connection building off of Route 50 in Ballston Spa.

He found a way to control the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) by immersing himself in the classic ideas and words of William Shakespeare. Now Wolfert devotes himself to reaching out to other veterans and offering them the same opportunity.   

Every year, thousands of military veterans in the United States are committing suicide, in proportions that are sharply higher per capita than the civilian population. That reality has given rise to many different therapeutic programs, including De-Cruit.   

Veterans Peer Connection Program Coordinator Amy Hughes said she first saw Wolfert perform his widely acclaimed show “Cry Havoc” two years ago in Massachusetts. Last year, he appeared at Universal Preservation Hall in Saratoga Springs, after which, Hughes said, she began coordinating directly with Wolfert to establish an annual event.  

Thirteen veterans signed up for the seven-week De-Cruit program, which was created in association with academic PTSD researchers. It concluded on Oct. 26.

Wolfert prefers a maximum of 15 participants at a time, and this year’s event drew in veterans ranging in age from 24 to 83, according to Hughes.

“They can relate to each other’s stories…regardless of when they served,” she said.    

Starting in September, Wolfert had worked individually with each local veteran, teaching them how to be candid about their own traumatic experiences in the military and then couple their memories with lines chosen from Shakespeare’s literary record. 

He also traveled frequently, returning to his home base in New York City or visiting other small towns in the region to coach more veterans in the same manner. He was accompanied on Oct. 26 by two women actors who sat calmly in the back row of chairs, assisting Wolfert as needed.      

“Here’s what we’re asking,” Wolfert explained, before yielding the floor to all 13 local veterans. “For you to come up, take up the time and space you need to speak what you feel and not what you ought to say…Plant your heels into what I call the toddler pose, breathe, share your truth and seamlessly transition into the Shakespeare monologue.”

“It’s an apology-free zone. We do enough of that out there," Wolfert said, gesturing toward the window behind him. 

“For those of you who are family or friends of vets in here,” he added, “thank you for loaning them to us for seven weeks—and thank you for being here tonight. Because this is hard, showing up for stuff. There’s a lot of yellow ribbons on cars, but very few people are doing what you’re actually doing, which is showing up.”   

Jill Hoffman was the first military veteran to speak. Her hands shook mildly, yet Hoffman stayed mindful of Wolfert’s breathing instruction as she clutched her papers and patiently proceeded to finish her difficult presentation.

Later, during a smoke break, Hoffman offered that Wolfert has a real knack for making people feel comfortable expressing themselves. She said the De-Cruit program should be expanded to help more local veterans.  

In between the brief performances, Wolfert would make comments such as “I’m so proud of you” and “beautiful breathing, beautiful grounding.”

Jesus Santiago, who served in the U.S. Army for eight years and the U.S. Air Force for five, said “there’s not enough adjectives” to describe how much the De-Cruit program helped him control his own PTSD symptoms.   

Military service can lead people to be “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Santiago said, which often explains the onset of PTSD in the first place.

The De-Cruit program in Ballston Spa is just one of many means through which local veterans are provided assistance. Wolfert even said November "has become Veterans' Month." 

“We really do appreciate the participation. Without you, this is nothing,” Frank McClement, director of the Saratoga County Veterans’ Service Agency, informed the De-Cruit participants in his opening remarks.

McClement said the various programs that he and Hughes offer to local veterans are supported annually through a $180,000 state grant.

Usually, McClement said, nonprofit organizations perform much of the same work, but Saratoga County takes a more direct approach by enlisting the veterans’ agencies.

A separate trust fund covers additional expenses, McClement explained. “These funds go to veterans” and do not cover salaries or administrative expenses, he said.

Funds are raised through such events as the sixth annual 5K run that the Veterans Peer Connection organized on Saturday, Nov. 4 between 10 a.m. and noon in Schuylerville. (More details are available at https://veteranspeertopeer.org/.)

Hughes also coordinates coffee nights between 5 and 7 p.m. every Tuesday at Saratoga Coffee Traders on Broadway, which gives veterans the freedom to share military stories. She said 10 to 20 individuals show up regularly for that event, even in stormy weather.  

“There is a program out there for everybody,” Hughes said. “I just want veterans to know they’re not alone and that people out there have their back.”

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