“I was 16 when (9/11) happened,” he said. “The actual decision to join came a year later, and my parents signed a waiver. If I had been 18, would I have signed up that day? Maybe. I wasn’t sure how far I wanted to jump. I wanted to serve, but I also wanted to go to college. When I actually enlisted in December 2002, Afghanistan was in full swing and Iraq was being talked about as something that would be quick and easy.” Smithson added with a laugh, “Or so we thought.”
Massolia said the play, like the book, follows Smithson through his basic training as a part-time Army Reservist and his deployment to Iraq as an engineer in 2004-05. Typically, said Smithson, engineers are near the front line but not actually at the front line, a dynamic further complicated by the fact that there really were no front lines in Iraq.
“There were times when people were shooting directly at us, or something nearby blew up,” he said. “There were only a handful of times where I thought, ‘This might be it.’ ”
The play (and the book, again) continues to follow Smithson back home again, where he belatedly enrolled in college and took up writing as a way to process his experiences. As with “Letters Home,” the actors break the “fourth wall,” mostly addressing the audience with occasional scenes between actors.
“The big challenge was finding a way to enhance the story through sound design,” Massolia said. “There is projection that depicts everything.”
Smithson was never deployed again. He remained a part-time Reservist until 2010. In the meantime, he missed his platoon and had a difficult time transitioning from “war mode” to civilian life.
“War is the ultimate reality of everything,” he said. “Everything is extreme, and then you come back to suburban America. People (at home) either don’t understand or care, so there’s resentment about that. Writing was a good way for me to cope, analyze and understand. I came to acceptance, but some people never get there.”
Smithson said he was thrilled when he was approached by Massolia for a theatrical version of his memoir, saying that to appreciate what veterans have gone through requires a lot more than a bumper sticker or a flag pin.
“Without dialogue, nothing really happens,” he said. “Listening is the biggest part. You don’t have to give them a spark of wisdom. Part of the therapy is just bearing witness. In addition to how weird it is to see someone play you onstage, it’s amazing to see the effect my words and stories are having on an audience in real time.”
How to go
What: “Ghosts of War: The True Story of a 19-Year-Old GI”
Where: Aronoff Center for the Arts, 650 Walnut St., Cincinnati
When: 8 p.m., Friday Dec. 9
More info: 513-621-2787 or www.cincinnatiarts.org