Eighty years ago next month, more than 20,000 World War I veterans, known as the Bonus Army, set up a tent city outside the White House to demand the bonuses the American government had promised but never gave them for their military service.
Black and white veterans, many out of work since the start of the Great Depression, stood side-by-side demanding what was owed them. The government responded by ordering the “occupiers” removed from government property. In the resulting clashes involving police and the military, some of the veterans died.
This little-known piece of American history is being reenacted in the academic halls of California State University, Northridge as a group of students, some veterans of America’s most recent wars, use theater to explore the needs of today’s military service personnel as they re-enter society.
“We are using the play, ‘The Bonus Army,’ as a way to contextualize the re-entry of American service men and women into society after their tours,” said theatre professor Doug Kaback, who put together the upper-division seminar class with colleagues in the Departments of Social Work, Music and Sociology. “The students, who come from disciplines from across the campus, have gone out and interviewed World War II, Korean War and Vietnam War veterans. Six of the students are vets themselves and have shared their experiences.
“While the play deals with veterans of the First World War, what the students are finding as they do their research is that despite the different wars and time periods, the experiences of the veterans in coming home can be very similar,” he said.
Kaback said he is hoping that the students, and others, will draw on what they have learned as they encounter the thousands of American service men and women who will be returning home as the United States’ military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan winds down.
The students have shared their research with screenwriter and playwright Lee Cohn, who is hoping to turn the story of the Bonus Army into a movie and has been serving as a master teacher in the class. There also have been informal performances of “The Bonus Army” at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Lodge in Granada Hills and at Valley and Pierce Colleges. A performance at Cal State Northridge has been scheduled at 12:15 p.m. on Friday, May, 11, in the Little Theatre in Nordhoff Hall near the southwest corner of the campus at 18111 Nordhoff St. in Northridge.
Kaback said the productions have served as a catalyst for a larger discussion at each venue as audience members and the performers, Kaback’s students, share their reactions to what has taken place on stage.
Junior Mia Williams, 22, a theater major, called the class and the performances “eye opening.”
“I thought I knew what was going on, but I really didn’t know what happened and is happening to our men and women who serve,” she said. “I have a new level of respect for what they went and are going through. I know this (experience) is going to shape how I see things in the future.”
David Johnson, 50, a former Marine and theater major, said he didn’t realize that there are so many people who felt guilty that they served in the military.
“From my perspective, that was my job,” he said. “I was willing to serve for those who, for whatever reason, could not. I didn’t judge what those reasons were.”
Erin Grace Nolan, 29, a Navy veteran and senior majoring in theater, admitted that when she returned to civilian life, she didn’t share the fact that she was a veteran.
“When I got out of the military, I wanted some decompression time,” she said. “I didn’t reach out to other vets. It seemed like we kind of avoided each other. I figured that that part of my life was over with and I wanted to get back to my family.
“But this class really helped me open up,” Nolan said. “All the different stories we heard, the people we talked to, they helped me realize it was okay not to have enjoyed my time in the military. And I did something I never thought I would do, I joined the American Legion.”
Josh Ellman, 29, a senior and communication studies major, admitted he signed up for the class because there weren’t any other classes available.
“But I don’t have any regrets,” he said. “I’ve learned so much about communication, verbal and non-verbal, particularly when it comes to the veterans. And I’ve also learned a new level of respect for what they have been through.”
Graduate student Alison Ankeny, 53, said the students’ and audience reactions to the project underscores her belief that theater can be a tool for social workers as they help military personnel return to civilian life.
“The Department of Defense admitted it does not have the resources to really serve the returning population of military personnel,” said Ankeny, who is doing her capstone project for her master’s in social work on the class. “Theater provides a community setting and a creative way for people to share what they have been through. It can be a very powerful tool—even if it’s just a reading of a play—for social workers who may be looking for creative ways to give additional support to their clients.
“At the same time, for those who didn’t serve, a theatrical project such as this provides a way to educate civilians about the experiences of men and women in our military,” she said.
“I wish the (Veterans Administration) offered something like this, where everyone is open to hearing what is being said, regardless of your differences—whether it’s politics or religion or whatever,” she said. “Everyone was respectful and everyone listened.”