The information stamped on the two clanking military dog tags is the same for each person: their name, Social Security Number, blood type and religious preference. But the journeys each person will take – from enlistment to service to veteran — are incredibly varied.
Four of those stories, as told by the local veterans who are living them, are brought to the stage with intimate detail as part of Telling: Jersey Shore.
Telling, whose last performance is a 2 p.m. November 19 show at the Black Box Theater at Ocean County College, features Phillip Zimmerman, Chris Marchewka, David Rosenak and Michael Schaffer – each are local veterans from eras spanning from Vietnam to the Global War on Terror.
The stories brought to the stage are their own. The four men each shared their stories as part of The Telling Project, a national performing arts nonprofit that uses theater to deepen the understanding of military and veteran experiences. The Telling Project came to Ocean County earlier this year, to listen to local stories as part of the listening project, and to also record for posterity.
From there, the four men were selected to have their stories re-written for a stage setting, while maintaining all the honesty and intimacy of their experiences.
A professional playwright provided assistance, and then the theater crew of Director Paul Chalakani, Stage Manage Leah Toscano, Technical Director Stephan Caldwell and more lead the men through rehearsals toward to opening night on November 10, to coincide with Veterans Day.
The seven-performance run drew a standing ovation on opening night as each veteran wove their story in with the next veteran’s, from enlistment to basic training to their years in service to the transition back to civilian, and now.
Marchewka served eight years active duty as a combat marine corps infantryman. He went on four deployments and served in Operation: Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom. Currently a student at OCC, Marchewka is also a new father and husband. In his performance, he recalls the lives that were lost in combat, but also of veterans’ lives lost after struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder lead to suicide.
Rosenak, in his performance, shares his own struggle with PTSD, and also the details of his service in Vietnam, arriving to a warzone that was unlike anything he could imagine, but also of the journey home. He dedicated his performance to Captain Malcomb Life and Captain Jerry Phillips, 19 Tactical Air Support Squadron, lost over Cambodia May 2 1970.
Schaffer, who is the currently the commander at the Toms River American Legion George P. Vanderveer Post 129, served in the Navy 1967 to 1973. Not every veteran sees heavy fire in a combat zone, and Schaffer shared his experience serving incredibly long-hour shifts in the strenuous, tight conditions aboard Navy vessels. One unique moment of urgency found his ship assigned to an emergency transport of the U.S. Olympic athletes amid the Israeli-Palestine terror unfolding at the Munich Olympics in 1972.
Zimmerman shared how his passion for linguistics lead him to advance as an Arabic and Farsi linguist in the Navy from 1980 to 1986, but was heartbreakingly ostracized in a time when LGBT status could bring a someone’s service to a swift end. Now, Zimmerman is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and serves as a Veterans Service Officer helping fellow veterans with Veterans Administration claims and is an LGBT advocate.
After opening night came to a close, the performers were embraced by the audience, who shared how moved they were and thanked each for their service.
These glimpses into each man’s life spanned a wide range of emotions in the theater setting, delivered as though each man was sharing his story with three fellow veterans, who would laugh, wince, or nod in agreement and recognition of each other. They each had their own unique story, but they were all united in their service and veteran status.
For more information or tickets, which are $15 each, visit grunincenter.org.
To learn more about the Telling Project, visit thetellingproject.org.