Theater Preview: Voices of Women Veterans on Northern Stage

By Susan B. Apel

The women whose voices make up the play’s dialogue are Vermont or New Hampshire residents who have sought medical care at the local VA hospital.

Deployed by Nicola Smith. Developed with help from Northern Stage and dramaturg Samantha Lazar, as well as grants from the Byrne Foundation, The Vermont Arts Council, the Vermont Community Foundation, and the Pussycat Foundation. Free staged reading at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, The William A Ysinski Research and Education Building, 163 Veterans Drive, White River Junction, VT, on March 30 at 1 p.m. Tickets can be booked through the Northern Stage Box Office or (802) 296-7000.

An Airman with the 886th Expeditionary Security Force Squadron looks on as she waits for a flight out of Camp Bucca, Iraq, Sept. 25. Photo: Sgt. Ezekiel R. Kitandwe, courtesy of the US Marine Corps.

The word “veteran” conjures up iconic pictures of soldiers who fought in combat in Europe, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq, and lived to tell about it: the wounded warrior, the vet with PTSD, the feted and fading World War II veterans with medals pinned to chests. The images are almost always of men, despite the fact that women — two million of them — comprise 9% of the current population of American veterans. By 2042, the number is expected to increase to over 16%.

In 2016, writer and journalist Nicola Smith wondered why we weren’t hearing the voices of female veterans. And she set out to find them. She accepted an invitation to sit in on a women’s book group at her local Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vermont. In the course of the group’s talks she heard stories that she felt needed to to be part of the social/cultural conversation.

Smith felt that her own imagination, and non-fiction writing skill, could not match “the power of these women’s voices, the rhythm of their speech . . . Their stories were so imprinted on their memories that they seemed fresh every time they were told.” So Smith decided to write her first script, a documentary play, its narrative focusing on the words and experiences of a distinctive set of women veterans.

Deployed is the result, scheduled for its debut, via a staged reading at where the project began, the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in White River Junction, Vermont. Seven actors portray women veterans in eighteen scenes drawn from their memories of military life. (The scenes are titled  “Guns,” “Enlistment,” and “Love.”)  The opening vignette paints a picture of the invisibility of women in the world of veterans: a woman named Jackie sits in the VA hospital waiting room while a technician repeatedly calls out “Mr. Pruitt, Mr. Pruitt.” It’s her last name, but not her sex. Nina, attempting to cash a check at a Kmart, grapples with a clerk who refuses to believe she is a retired Captain in the United States Air Force. The cashier glances from Nina to her ID, asking “Is this a joke?”

Smith was intent on including diverse characters with eye-opening experiences. The women whose voices make up the play’s dialogue are Vermont or New Hampshire residents who have sought medical care at the local VA hospital. But they represent every branch of the military. Some are older, some recently discharged. Each titled scene looks at the ‘focus’ word in a number of different ways. In “Enlistment,” for example, one character sees herself as a warrior since childhood; another sees that serving her country also offers a chance to get away from home. Kelly gave up a boxing career to become a Marine. Some were mothers during the time of their deployment. Instead of being celebrated as heroes, like their male counterparts, the women were vilified for leaving their children behind.

If there is a single through line in Deployed, it is the near-universal experience of sexual assault. (Statistics from the Department of Defense are not always consistent, but one watchdog group has found that 38% of female military personnel and veterans have experienced Military Sexual Trauma (MST). The DoD  claims that only 1 out 3 women report the crime.) Three of the scenes in the play deal with issues of rape and sexual harassment; the women were victimized by colleagues or superior officers. One memorable scene, without dialogue, gives us a female soldier forced to turn, slowly, in front of her commanding officer — while he makes sexually suggestive sounds.

In the age of #metoo, Smith found these stories “not surprising, but shocking nonetheless.” The women interpreted these experiences as being about more than sexual assault — they understood them as acts of profound betrayal, antithetical to the military code they obeyed throughout their training. That code insists that a soldier is, above all, part of a cohesive unit to which s/he must be loyal. The demand that that “no man (sic) be left behind” is  grievously violated — mostly without meaningful consequence — every time a woman is assaulted or harassed by her supposed brothers-in-arms.

Anecdotal rather than didactic, Deployed draws no discrete conclusions. The stories here set out to illuminate the common experience of female veterans, focusing on what differentiates them from their male colleagues. The result is a fascinating — and at times infuriating — look into a world that the mainstream media, and society, neglects.

Susan B. Apel is a writer and law professor whose creative nonfiction and poetry has appeared in Vine Leaves Literary Journal, Best of Vine Leaves 2015, Rhizomes, The Vignette Review, Woven Tale Press, Bloodroot, and the Fredericksburg Literary and Art Review. Her blog, ArtfulEdge, in which she writes about arts in the Upper Connecticut River Valley, appears regularly on the She is also a contributor to the newspaper, Vermont Woman. She lives in Lebanon, NH.

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