A few minutes before show time, Rose Feroah thought she was going to vomit.
“That’s pretty much a guarantee,” she said. “I am feeling quite nervous.”
Feroah, 33, was getting ready to tell a packed audience at the Drafthouse Comedy Theater in downtown Washington, D.C., about being a Marine vet and a mom. Though she had been preparing for weeks, Feroah worried that her struggles with memory loss related to post-traumatic stress disorder would show up in the middle of her performance.
“I’m just really afraid that I’m not going to remember why I’m up there. I literally have moments where I’ll be having a normal, zero-stress conversation, and I black out in the middle of a sentence,” Feroah said.
She was a hit.
“I don’t know if you guys have driven through D.C. with mini terrorists in your back seat, but it’s stressful,” she said, drawing a large laugh from the audience. She then launched into a tale of the time she convinced her then 5-year-old twins to stop bickering by pretending that a Starbucks cake was a magic potion that would turn her into a bear, à la Disney’s “Brave.”
Feroah was one of roughly a dozen veterans who spent the last couple months in a Storytelling 101 class taught by the nonprofit Story District, in collaboration with the Armed Services Arts Partnership, or ASAP. For the graduation showcase on Sunday, Nov. 12, each had six minutes to share a personal anecdote.
There were stories about war, the tragedies and triumphs of family life, and the difficult transition from service member to civilian. Some saw the exercise as a way to heal — through laughter or tears. Others used it as a stepping stone to build confidence and practical skills for a new civilian career.
The graduating class was just the second group of veterans to participate in the new offering from ASAP. The nonprofit, which grew out of the William & Mary Center for Veterans Engagement, also runs standup comedy and improv classes for veterans in D.C. and Hampton Roads, Virginia.
The programs offer a way to help reintegrate veterans and their families into civilian life through the arts, said ASAP Founder and Executive Director Sam Pressler. Classes focus on the craft — both writing and public speaking — with the additional bonus of social support.
“We also believe in the power of stories and the power of performance to humanize,” Pressler said before the graduation show. “Too often, we as a community sometimes view veterans on this polarized spectrum from hero to broken, and it’s a lot more in the middle of that.”
The six-week Storytelling 101 program was led by Story District instructors Joseph Price and Stephanie Garibaldi. After the students brainstormed ideas, group discussions centered around the main idea of the story they wanted to tell, as well as the obstacles they encountered along the way. They had a chance to practice telling their stories to each other in one-on-one and group settings, getting feedback on the flow and whether they’d left any loose threads.
“People are people, but there is this awareness that there’s this whole other depth of experience that (veteran students) potentially bring to the table that our typical student doesn’t have,” Garibaldi said.
For Sebastian Munevar, that was the loss of a comrade, who died in an explosion moments after Munevar himself had walked over the mine that killed his friend.
For Mike White, it was the moment he realized a wounded, emaciated Taliban soldier he captured likely hadn’t realized what he’d signed up for, much as White hadn’t.
And for Jake Boggs, it was a 29-year Navy career that ended in 2015, five years after a cancer diagnosis hindered him from meeting the required milestones to get promoted.
“When I retired, I was pretty much caught flat-footed. I thought, ‘What the f--- is happening?’ I felt anger, pissed off, disappointed — hated everyone, couldn’t relate to anyone,” Boggs, 49, told the audience during his performance.
He’d imagined retirement as a chance to sit in his underwear and eat Cheetos all day.
Instead, it was more like a “blinding fog.”
“The structure that I had been used to for so long was gone,” he said in an interview. “It was a little hard for me because I was one of those few guys that never married while I was in the military. I replaced a family of my own for a military career.”
Therapy has helped, Boggs said — the “blinding fog” is now more of a “light haze” — and when he found out about ASAP’s storytelling program, he, like Feroah, saw it as opportunity for self care, as well as a chance to practice skills that may come in handy if he starts his own business someday.
Army veteran Maureen Elias, 40, also took the class to get a leg up in the civilian world by learning how to be more engaging when she talks. She said she practiced 15 to 20 times a week for her story on her youngest child’s autism diagnosis — especially moving because Elias’ two older children are also on the autism spectrum.
“I’ve been working to become a national mental health advocate, and (a friend) said, ‘Maureen, I love you, but you’re boring,’” Elias said. “I’ve taken the class to try to liven my voice a little bit so I can hold the attention of those congressmen and women when I’m begging them to give me things that the veterans need.”
Elias also appreciated the opportunity to learn how to better convey her military experiences to civilians who don’t share her background ― starting with the class instructors, to whom she’d have to explain military acronyms.
“It gives that translation of not only what we did but what it felt like,” she said. “It gives civilians the opportunity, the chance, to step into our experience and feel and share those emotions with us, which can then sort of break down some of that hesitancy.”
Pressler came to that realization as he was reading the book “Tribe,” which sparked the idea for ASAP’s storytelling program.
Throughout history, he said, the veteran has taken on the role of a storyteller. It’s the community’s responsibility to listen.