AUGUSTA — Bethanie Mazzaro spent 20 years on active duty with the Maine Army National Guard until retiring last fall. Her story, like those of the thousands of other women who have served in combat, is virtually unknown to the population at large.
But now Mazzaro, who is serving as a technical consultant on “The Lonely Soldier: Women at War in Iraq,” a documentary play set to open Thursday at the Holocaust Center of Maine, is helping bring at least a few of those stories to light.
“The nation is ignorant as to what really happens in the day-to-day life of any service member,” Mazzaro said.
Based on journalist Helen Benedict’s book of the same name, “Lonely Soldier” shines a light on seven women who served in Iraq. The women, ages 19 to 47, share firsthand experiences of war, their own personal struggles and discrimination. Benedict, who has testified before Congress on her findings, interviewed dozens of women in preparation for writing the book.
“There were themes that kept echoing,” play director Jeri Pitcher said. “Not only are females in the military fighting the enemy, there’s a lot of their fellow soldiers.”
About 400 military veterans attend UMA, including distance learners, according to the school’s veterans’ success coordinator, Amy Line. She works closely with many of those veterans and has heard their stories of combat, military life and re-adjusting to life back home. Line, who spent 20 years in the Navy beginning in the 1970s, has experienced some of those same struggles. She said when she heard the first reading of “Lonely Soldier,” some of the stories she heard, and her own, echoed through her mind.
“There’s a piece of each woman’s story that definitely resonated with me,” she said. “I’ve heard those pieces. These are real stories of real women.”
Line hopes the play will not only make people aware of the unique challenges faced by both men and women in the military, but also open up discussions about how best to address those challenges.
“If you hear the words from somebody who experienced it, it makes more of an impact,” she said.
Pitcher said her biggest concern was getting actresses who never served in the military to look military enough to deliver those words convincingly. The details, such as dress, deportment and dialogue, can either draw the audience into the character’s world or push them to the outer limits of credulity.
“We’re hoping the details we add here will really enhance the story,” Pitcher said. “What’s most important for us is that we are authentic for the veteran population.”
Mazzaro was called in to help accomplish that task. The retired sergeant taught the actresses military customs and courtesies and answered questions about uniforms and terminology, but she also put the actresses through their paces, even conducting an inspection Saturday afternoon. Mazzaro described the experienced as light basic training.
“I wanted them to have a true, authentic feel of being a female soldier,” she said.
Mazzaro shared her stories with the women and brought in fellow female veterans to do the same. Friday night the actresses went to an indoor firing range at the Maine Army National Guard’s Camp Keyes in Augusta, where many of the women fired a weapon for the first time in their lives.
“The senses are what brings our emotions out and connect us,” Mazzaro said. “I feel they’re very well connected.”
Dana Legawiec, of Bowdoinham, who plays Sgt. Miriam Ruffolo, said the input from Mazzaro and Line proved invaluable.
“This stamp of authenticity and their voices have really brought this project into a better realm,” Legawiec said.
Legawiec said she has limited personal experience in the world of the military, but she was drawn to the project by an opportunity to shed light on what she considers an important subject.
“I have a tremendous amount of respect for these women, who are drawn to serve for all sorts of reasons,” Legawiec said. “There’s a lot of pain, too. Some of it’s beyond belief, but my hope is that there is healing somewhere for someone.”
Mary Randall, of New Gloucester, who plays Spc. Anna Peterford, said she spent considerable time trying to get to know her character — the names of all the veterans have been changed — so she could mimic her mannerisms. At the same time, Randall said she wants to bring her own ideas and personality to the character.
“It’s a different process, for sure, just because you’re trying to a real person instead of a character,” she said.
Randall said the process has been challenging but the hard work has been worthwhile.
“It’s been really wonderful to work with so many actresses,” she said. “It’s been fascinating to have the experience of working with real veterans.”
David Greenham, program director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center, said the idea of putting on the play is not to point fingers or try to find a new enemy, but to highlight problems that affect society at large in a search for ways to address those problems.
“It’s about saying, ‘This is happing. Is this the world we want to live in? Is this the community we want to live in?'” Greenham said. “I have great confidence that it’s not, that we don’t want these sorts of things to be happening. We don’t want our women, whether they’re in the military or not, we don’t want them to be afraid for their safety.”
Greenham said he has been looking to work with Line on a project that would highlight the human rights component to the nation’s treatment of veterans. He hopes the play will spark a wider conversation about what that treatment is now and how it can be better. That is the work of the Holocaust center, he said.
“They’re difficult conversations to have, but we really think they’re necessary,” Greenham said. “We all need to figure out how to treat each other better. No matter what topic you land on, that’s the theme. We just need to treat each other better, and I think that this helps move that discussion forward a little bit.”
Craig Crosby — 621-5642