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Veterans Share Stories In 'Telling: Pensacola' Performance

Florida Humanities Council


Six Pensacola-area veterans will take to the stage this weekend for two performances of “Telling: Pensacola."

The first performance will be held at the University of West FloridaCenter for Fine and Performing Arts this Saturday, Nov. 7 at 6:30 p.m., 11000 University Parkway.

A second performance will take place Sunday, Nov. 8 at 2:30 p.m. at Pensacola Little Theatre, inside the Pensacola Cultural Center, 400 South Jefferson Street.

The production is sponsored by the Florida Humanities Council in partnership with the national Telling Project, founded in 2008 to help bridge the communication gap with an American society in which less than one percent of the population has served in the military over the past dozen years of war.

Pensacola is only the second city in Florida to host the Telling Project, following a spring 2015 performance of Telling: Tampa Bay.

Two of the local veterans taking part in the program, Debra Russell and Elliot James Smith, shared their stories with WUWF Public Media.

Russell served 13 years in the Navy (1984-1997), including the Gulf War Campaign, as an Independent Duty Storekeeper, a certified instructor, and a contracting officer.

“It was a way for me to have a good retirement,” said Russell in regards to why she joined the military. “I was a single parent and I needed more money and benefits and that was a great way to get them.”

Smith served two years in the Army (2004-2006), including a tour in Iraq where he manned a machine in convoys. Initially, he had a different initial motivation.

“Well, all the role models and heroes that I grew up with, like my grandfathers and my uncles, they were all in the military,” Smith said. “After high school I decided to go to the workforce and when that didn’t work out, I knew the best thing I could do was join the military.”

Each of the participants have dealt with their own challenges during their service and as they transitioned back to civilian life.

Credit Dave Dunwoody / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Veterans Elliot James Smith and Debra Russell.

Russell was discharged from the Navy after she injured both knees and dislocated a shoulder in a fall, but she also suffered from other issues.

“One of the challenges I had was military sexual trauma,” Russell said, explaining why she didn’t report it at the time. “I just didn’t tell because I didn’t want to go through what I see people going through in court, where the female is always drug through a lot. So I kind of kept it a secret because of that and I actually forgot about it for a long time, until this play.”

Meantime, while serving in Iraq, Smith was run over by a heavy equipment truck, which caused him to lose his right leg below the knee. He spent 18 months at Walter Reed Medical Center before coming home and trying to rebuild his life. For a time, he says reintegrating was a struggle.

“Because I had come so close basically to my mortality, I had come so close to death, the things that mattered to me before I went to Iraq and into the military didn’t matter to me anymore,” said Smith, noting that his priorities had become more focused. “What really mattered to me were things like family and values.”

As for their participation in the Telling: Pensacola project, Smith and Russell both say it has helped them to confront their issues.

“There’s no running,” Smith said. “I did run for a long time. I had problems with alcohol and pain-killers for a long time after I served. I had problems with all kinds of things for a while because I was trying to avoid the reality of how I had been affected by war and violence.”

They hope that sharing their stories will also help to foster a better understanding of their experiences during and after their military service within the community at- large, and possibly help other veterans going through some of the same issues.

As an example, Russell cites her experience with Veterans Affairs (VA). “They have good quality health care and a lot of great programs,” she said, while also pointing out that navigating the system can be difficult. “Because what happens is when you get out of the military, there’s a gap from getting out to getting help.”

Russell is now an advocate for veteran’s organizations.

Smith is now a marathon runner and in school to become a prosthetics provider.

The other local participants include Patrick McCrary, a Vietnam War Veteran, who served six years in the Marine Corps (1967-1973). A Marine rifleman, he was wounded in heavy combat in 1968.

Scott Satterwhite served nine years as a hospital corpsman in the Navy (1990-1999), with almost half of that time assigned to the Marine Corps.

Tabitha Nichols served eight years in the Army National Guard (2003-2011), including a tour in Iraq. She was injured in a rocket-propelled grenade attack.

Timothy Jones served two years in the Navy (1998-2000), stationed in Japan. After discharge, he was helped by the VA to address his own mental health issues and now serves as an advocate for veterans’ initiatives.

To find out more about their stories and the upcoming stage production visit the Florida Humanities Council website. 

The performances are Saturday, 6:30 p.m. on UWF’s Mainstage Theatre and Sunday, 2:30 p.m., at Pensacola Little Theatre.

WUWF's Dave Dunwoody speaks to veterans Debra Russell and Elliot James Smith about their participation in Telling: Pensacola.

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.