The Green Beret instructor moved up close to Danny Patton.
"Out of 600 candidates, only a handful you will make the cut," he yelled in Patton’s ear. "This class represents an all-time low of the America gene pool!"
Patton was about to respond, but a woman interrupted, addressing the instructor.
"Bryan, don’t feel like you have to push your voice so much you blow it out," she said. "Save that beautiful gift you have."
Their interaction is not the start of a three-week military training class, but a rehearsal for a new one-act play, Last Out: Elegy of a Green Beret.
The woman is director Ame Livingston. The instructor is former Army Staff Sgt. Bryan Bachman.
Written by Scott Mann, a retired Green Beret lieutenant colonel now living in Riverview, Last Out tells the story of war, its effect on those who fight it and on the loved ones left to wait and worry.
Nearly two decades into the nation’s longest war, Mann said his play is a way to help the 99.5 percent of Americans who do not serve in the military understand those who do. It debuts Saturday, the day before Veterans Day, at the The Marriott Waterside Hotel & Marina downtown.
"This is a story about protecting the people you love," said Mann, who plays the part of Danny Patton. "But more importantly, it’s about letting go the pain of war and coming home."
• • •
Mann, 50, joined the Army five years before 9/11. But like so many others, the jihadi attacks on his homeland left a lasting impression.
It wasn’t always a good one.
His best friend Cliff Patterson was killed in the attack on the Pentagon and Mann said he spent much of his time afterward seeking payback. He wasn’t alone.
"We were pushing a much more kinetic path to get at the bad guys and put scalps on the barn," he said. "It is safe to say a large part of our regiment did the same thing until about 2009, 2010. There were more Taliban than we started, and we lost our way."
He and his teammates with the 7th Special Forces Group teammates soon got back to the job that Green Berets mainly do — working with local partners like the Afghan Local Police. But when Mann came back home, he spent a few years in a dark place.
He and his wife Monty eventually formed a non-profit, called The Heroes Journey, to help service members transition to civilian life by learning to tell their own stories. The new play is, in part, a fundraiser to keep this effort going. He plans to take on the road, performing around the country.
"What I found in my own transition is I became dark after a couple of years and it was only through learning to tell my story, my hero’s journey I guess, that I started to reconnect with my purpose and find my way home."
• • •
Last Out is about the journey of fictional Green Beret team sergeant Danny Patton, killed in action and stuck in purgatory on his way to Valhallah by something he can’t let go of.
The other two combat veterans in the cast of the play also know well the difficult trek from warrior to civilian.
In the case of Bachman, who plays the instructor and eight other characters, the trek cost him valuable time with his family. For Lenny Bruce, who plays two characters, it cost him his marriage.
Bachman, 29, was in the Army from 2007 to 2015. When he deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, his daughter was a year old. She only knew him through video chats and a doll with a picture of his face, something he jokingly called "Baby Daddy."
When he got home, "she didn’t know who I was," Bachman said. "For days, she would cry when she looked at me, like I was some grossly enlarged version of the Baby Daddy. I was 19, my feelings were hurt."
Bachman wasn’t around for the birth of his son, despite complications with his wife’s pregnancy.
Deployed to Iraq in 2011 during the last days of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he was ordered to stay until the last troops headed out by truck convoy to Kuwait.
He decided to leave the service.
"I realized my priorities had changed at that point."
For Bruce, a Green Beret who retired in 2012 as a master sergeant after 23 years in uniform, the price of service was even greater.
"Out of the first 10 years of my son’s life, I only spent five years with him," said Bruce, 47, who deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq and the Philippines with the 1st Special Forces Group. "I got a divorce as a result of constant deployments. They suffered as much as I did."
"In fact, probably even more. That’s what attracted me to this production."
Over the past 17 years, nearly 7,000 U.S. troops have died, hundreds of thousands more have suffered injuries visible and invisible and trillions in tax dollars have been spent.
The stories of the actors reflect the experiences of many in the service.
"It’s the constant grind of the stress and the pressure that really adds up over time," said Karen Ruedisueli, a military spouse who helps run the National Military Family Association, in a 2016 RAND Corp. study on the effects of deployments on families. "I was sleeping with my fists clenched to the point that my arms were sore. Has it brought us to our knees? No, but it most certainly has an effect."
• • •
Even in its rehearsal phase, Last Out has opened some eyes — its director’s.
Though she comes from a military family, Livingston, an Orlando-based actress who also plays three characters, said directing the play has been illuminating.
Livingston said she "learned a ton" researching the lives of military families, especially the role of spouses.
"Hearing more and more about their stories, how much they are forces to be dealt with as mom and dad, holding things together," she said. "They are the glue. The peanut butter. One of the wives I spoke with said her husband was around just 30 days a year."
That education, the playwright said, is the point of the play.
"War is war," said Mann, who like many of his generation has a child heading for service — a driving factor in his decision to write the play.
"I don’t care how surgical you try to make it or how clean," he said. "War is an ugly, messy, corrosive thing and if we are going to ask our men and women to do it, we damn sure better know what it is we are asking them to do. You won’t be able to leave the theater without knowing what that is."
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman