Near the site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan, first responders lined the shore of the Hudson River, standing at attention.
The date was Nov. 2, 2009, and the U.S.S. New York, a San Antonio-class ship constructed with 7.5 tons of steel from the Twin Towers cast in its bow, was passing by. The ship was named for those who died in the September 11 attacks, and this visit at the conclusion of the ship’s inaugural five-day voyage from Norfolk was filled with meaning.
“We literally sailed the World Trade Center home,” says Rev. Laura Bender, who was aboard the USS New York as part of her work as a military chaplain.
The experience is one of many that informs Bender’s “Living on a Prayer,” a new work that will be performed over the next two weekends as part of the one-act play festival “War in Pieces.” Staged by the Virginia War Memorial Foundation in partnership with Virginia Rep, the festival is now in its second year.
The festival sprang out of the Mighty Pen Project, a program started by bestselling novelist and playwright David L. Robbins. After reading a story about a weekend writing program for veterans in New York, Robbins created the Might Pen Project as a way to give veterans a university-style creative writing experience free of charge.
The first class took place in 2015; the program has expanded to three 12-week cohorts per year, hosted by the Virginia War Memorial Foundation. Each cohort includes roughly 15 students and features veterans from all ages, backgrounds, military branches and experiences. Everything from poetry to memoirs to fiction to plays is workshopped through the program.
The Mighty Pen Project has also partnered with Virginia Commonwealth University to create an online repository for the veterans’ work. Roughly 150 written works are currently stored in their archive.
“It’s been, by all measures, a grand success,” says Robbins, who teaches creative writing at VCU and previously taught at William and Mary. The veterans are “really supportive of each other,” he says. “It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
- Courtesy of Va Rep
- (From left) Dustin Dunbar , Keith Burns, Austen Linder, Stanley Lundberg, William Vaughn, Caitlin E. Nolan, and David Lyve Watkins in "King Baby."
Today, the second “War in Pieces” festival opens at the Virginia War Memorial’s Alumni Hall, featuring four one-acts. The show opens with “The God of Baghdad,” the story of a young Army medic who responds to an improvised explosive device (IED) attack with 50-60 casualties. With limited time and resources, he must quickly determine who he can save and who is beyond his ability to help. The one-act is based on a true event that playwright Philip Trezza, a 14-year combat Army medic, experienced.
“He was the only medic [at the scene], so for 15, 20 minutes, Philip Trezza was in effect a god. He was determining who would live, who would die,” says Robbins. “It is a powerful, powerful depiction of the terrifying moments in that circumstance, and what he, as a young medic, had to face.”
“Dress Code” is about a man who has recently left the Marines and now works at his family’s bar outside of Philadelphia. The one-act is based on playwright Joseph Maslanka’s lived experience of returning to bartending after having 147 Marines under his command.
“You come back and you’re just kind of wild,” Maslanka says. A pivotal incident in Maslanka’s life occurred when two drunk customers entered the bar wearing tank tops, violating the bar’s dress code. Maslanka offered them loaner shirts to borrow while they were at the bar, but they refused.
“These two guys, they come in. They’re a little pumped up from a clambake. I’m trying to uphold my Dad’s rule and it got out of hand,” he says. The incident led Maslanka’s father to confront him about either returning to the Marines or adjusting to civilian life.
“Everything changed,” says Maslanka, who has worked in private security for the past 30 years. “It was a moment where you finally had to come to grips and realize you can’t fool around anymore. You’ve got to make a decision.”
“King Baby,” by Daniel Barotti, takes place as a U.S. Navy ship is crossing the equator. In what’s known as a “line-crossing ceremony,” those who have sailed over the equator before initiate those who haven’t in “a sort of Mardi Gras hazing,” Robbins says. “It can get crazy if you’re talking about an aircraft carrier. You’re talking about 2,000 people onboard.”
As this takes place in the show, a massive Chinese destroyer lurks nearby that could blow them out of the water, and those aboard the U.S. Navy ship must decide whether to cancel their event.
Bender’s “Living on a Prayer” portrays the impact that 25 years of being a military chaplain can have on a person.
“That’s not a story that gets told,” says Bender, who is firm in her conviction that she made the right decision in joining the military, even though she sometimes wakes up screaming in the middle of the night from what she’s seen. “If a chaplain says, ‘I’m hurting, this is a lot, this is too much,’ then people would say, ‘Maybe you can’t do your job anymore,’ so chaplains don’t go for help.”
After spending the first part of her career as a chaplain in New York, she only contemplated becoming a military chaplain because of a practical joke: Bender’s mother sent in a request for her to receive information about military chaplaincy. Two weeks shy of her 40th birthday, Bender joined the Navy.
In 2003, she deployed to Iraq and followed the Marines north as they took Baghdad.
“A lot of our patients were 18, 19 years old, and I was old enough to be their mother,” says Bender, who was later told by the Marine Corps that she was the first American female chaplain in an combat zone. “Too many 19-year-olds I zipped into body bags, because when they do triage, they give the dead to the chaplain and they send everybody else to medical.”
Bender was sent to a psychologist as she was being discharged from the miliary. After a two-and-a-half-hour session, the psychologist asked if she would be surprised by a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“My first thought was, ‘Thank you. Someone finally sees that this had an effect.’”
“War in Pieces” runs March 17-26 at the Virginia War Memorial’s Alumni Hall, 621 Belvidere St. For more information, visit va-rep.org or call (804) 282-2620.