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Thursday, Sept. 9, 2010 02:32 am

Onstage, a vet tells it like it was

A Long Way Home depicts the struggle of coming back from war

Actors Sharion Israel (left to right), Florence Holmes, Latrice Nettles, Kevin Holmes, Secquyah Cooper, Gregory Israel rehearse a scene from A Long Way Home.
When Springfield resident Tom Jones reads about or meets a young veteran returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, something deep within him stirs. Jones remembers well the difficulties of adjusting to life inside the comfort of America after reality within the hell of a war zone.

The days he spent in the jungles of Vietnam might be decades past but they sometimes seem closer. “Time has no meaning because memories return and the moment — along with all its emotional challenges and fears — is back,” Jones says. It took him 20 years to write a book about those issues. A Long Way Home, Jones’ multimedia play based on his book, Lost Survivor, opens this weekend at the Hoogland Center for the Arts.

Jones, once a Senior Hospital Corpsman, received the Purple Heart and several other accolades for his service. But like many of his contemporaries, he couldn’t escape the memories of war. “I came back with a sense of loss mixed with a feeling of invincibility. It took a long time before I could walk down the street without looking for an ambush,” he recalls. Years later, Jones started counseling other veterans as assistant director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. He started to write more seriously after noticing a lack of understanding between veterans and their families.

He created the story of Johnny Douglas, a Springfield man who, like Jones, returns from Vietnam changed. Lost Survivor, published in 2006, has a website which reads “Surviving in Nam came at a price — a price paid by [Johnny’s] family, friends, strangers, and even himself... Nam changed him. Could he readapt to survive at home?”

The question, Jones has found, is a real one that many veterans face. While his war may have been a different one, it shares some similarities (such as a hidden enemy) with the present day. Jones points to the National Guard as one area of improvement because soldiers train and interact with each other before they are thrust together into a war zone.

Heidi Dillon as Aunt Katheryn in the Vietnam-era play based on Jones’ novel.
By contrast, Vietnam soldiers often boarded a plane with strangers and landed in Nam a mere 14 hours later. Those who escaped with wounds frequently bypassed modern transitional facilities and were back on the streets of their hometowns two days after being in the jungle. “Our kids today might still be fighting in a part of the world that we don’t know, but our communities know what they are doing, and we help and support them,” Jones says.

As a writer, Jones is looking to break new ground with an innovative stage production. “We’re doing something very unique by combining multimedia and live actors to create a rich tapestry through which the audience can experience this story,” he says. The approach, which includes video, photos, music and effects, is intended to connect on a more visceral level. He hopes those who come will go away with a better understanding of how a mortar attack and enemy fire can change a person for life. “The show takes a look at combat and examines how something that happens in a short period of time can have such a dramatic impact for the rest of someone’s life,” he says. The book and stage incarnations were both designed to help resolve the shared misunderstandings of a veteran and his loved ones.

Jones’ cast and crew are comprised of independent locals who started rehearsing six weeks ago after members responded to an advertisement. A high definition video crew will record the performances, which are scheduled for Sept. 10-12, Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoon. Opening night includes an optional pre-dinner party, buffet and after party. VFW Post 755 will post the colors prior to Friday’s performance and the Saturday show will feature a 9/11 Memorial Service conducted by American Legion Post #32. For more info: 217-523-2787 or www.hcfta.org.

Contact Zach Baliva at zachbaliva@gmail.com.
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