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John Lamb, Published November 18 2012

Play uses veterans’ stories to address deployment and readjustments to civilian life

FARGO – Before retiring in 2007, Keith Huff spent 20 years in the Army.

“Twenty years, two months and 13 days. But who was counting?” he says with a laugh.

Now Huff is facing one of his biggest challenges since leaving the service – talking about his experiences.

He’s doing it in a very public way and not one he would’ve considered while serving. Huff is part of the cast of “ReEntry,” a theatrical look at the lives of soldiers who go to war, the families they leave behind and what happens when soldiers come home.

“It makes me say things out loud that I normally wouldn’t,” Huff says.

Theatre B and the Department of Veteran Affairs, Fargo V.A. Health System, teamed up for the regional production, which has been staged in Fargo, Grand Forks and Bismarck. The play returns to Fargo on Tuesday for performances at noon and 3 p.m. at the Fargo V.A.

“We tell the story of war a lot, but we don’t often tell the story of home and what that could mean in different ways,” says director Brad Delzer. “We try to do as much socially engaged theater as we can that fits the bill well. It’s a challenging production that asks hard questions, how we ask men and women to do the dirty work, and then welcome them home. It was challenging to me and that’s the sign of a good play.”

Huff compares deployment and returning home to rowing in a canoe with family when you’re suddenly told to get out of the boat and swim away.

“What happens when you jump out of a canoe? It tips and doesn’t right itself easily,” he explains.

A year or so later you return to the boat and try to get in.

“What happens when you try to get into a canoe? If you don’t have the right tools, you swamp it,” he says. “You have to figure out how to get the canoe going forward again.”

He speaks from personal and professional experience. The former sergeant first class is now a reintegration specialist helping soldiers readjust, part of the Yellow Ribbon Program in Fargo.

The six-person play is based on interviews with Marines and their families. The actors’ dialogue is taken from those transcripts and delivered as if questions were asked.

Huff plays John, whose brother Charlie, played by Taylor Schatz, also served.

Delzer says the production poses broader questions to the audience, like what is the new normal and what is lost and gained in service?

Huff had no experience acting when a teacher at the University of Mary in Fargo suggested he try out.

“At first I wasn’t excited,” he recalls. “My fear was I was going to propagate a stereotype … that we all come back with post-traumatic stress disorder and we’re all crazy and it’s true.”

He called his father, a former Marine, with his concern. His father told him the play would happen with or without him, so, “Why not be part of it and make it more real as opposed to pretend?”

Although the authors, Emily Ackerman and KJ Sanchez, never served, Huff says the script is accurate and honest.

“They did a spectacular job stitching things together,” he says.

While the script made sense, learning about the theater and stage presence didn’t come naturally.

“Acting is hard,” he says. “A lot of the military training kicks in. I have to set my own personal emotions aside and just do the job.”

Still, it’s not easy addressing the experiences and some parts are harder than others.

Speaking on Wednesday, he was anxious about Saturday’s production in Bismarck where his mom would see the show. He says she’d likely relate to the play’s mom, played by Mary Cochran. At one point in the play, Huff’s character considers suicide.

“She never really knew how bad it was,” Huff says. “She’ll find out Saturday night.”

At one point Huff’s character delivers a soliloquy about, “bringing a fair share of death and destruction. … That’s a little harder to work through sometimes.”

One of the hardest things in the production was getting used to touching his on-stage wife.

Huff was married when he was deployed, but when he came back things had changed. Before he left, the couple had been trying to have kids. When he got back, he no longer wanted to be a father and the couple eventually divorced.

He’s not seeing anyone now, but if he was he would invite them to the show to learn what his experiences were like. Still, he says he would be nervous about conversations after and questions about how much was real.

“I thought it was very well done, very realistic depiction of what it is to come back from war and how it impacts the family,” says Brad Aune, commander of Fargo American Legion, who served for 22 years. “I would highly recommend it to anyone who wanted to understand where veterans are coming from.”

For Huff, it’s a good way to relay the experience.

“It’s hard to try to explain to normal people,” he says. “Imagine returning from a vacation and having friends ask questions about your experiences. Try to describe what Aruba smells like or what a fresh mango tastes like. As you explain it, eventually that person gets a glossed over look on their face, and it makes you not want to try and describe it.”

“Theater creates a safe space to tell stories you can’t tell at a party,” Delzer says.

Huff says being in the production is not only helping him, but he sees it having an effect on those in the crowd.

“To know people in the audience and have them come up to you after was emotional, powerful,” he says.

While everyone has been very supportive, some realities have hit home.

“My aunt and uncle came on Sunday,” he says, referring to the first Fargo show, a Veterans’ Day production at the American Legion. “They said, ‘We had no idea this is what it was like for you.’ That was hard to hear.”

While he’s learning to deal with his experiences, they weren’t all bad and there are still some things he misses about the Army

“I miss the camaraderie, being part of something bigger than yourself,” he says. “I miss wearing the uniform. I struggled with that, trying to find my next uniform.”

While he wears civilian clothes in the play, he got a buzz cut for the production and wears his dog tags to help get in character.

He says the Army is getting better about eliminating the stigma of “getting help,” but says the play has helped him.

“What I’ve learned now is to talk more. Share better,” he says.

But sometimes the best thing anyone can do is listen.

“My dad always told me, ‘If you want to be the coolest guy in the room, just listen,’ ” he says. “People love to tell their story.”


Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533