“Beyond Glory,” which First Presbyterian Theater opens tonight, explores courage and duty by pulling from the stories of eight veterans from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Each character in the Stephen Lang play gives his account of the actions that earned them the Medal of Honor. It is based on the book by Larry Smith.
The show, directed by Thom Hofrichter, can be seen through Jan. 18. A portion of each ticket sold will be donated to Shepherd’s House, which helps veterans with addiction issues.
The cast includes veterans Tom Sites and Scott McMeen, who answered several questions via email. Responses have been edited.
Q. Which role are you performing?
McMeen: I am playing the role of Lewis L. Millet, an infantry veteran of WWII, Korea and Vietnam. He received his Medal of Honor for service in Korea. On Feb. 7, 1951, he led one of the last genuine bayonet charges in U.S. Army history.
Sites: I am playing Cmdr. James Stockdale of the Navy. He commands the carrier air wing aboard the USS Oriskany. His story begins on Sept. 9, 1965, when he is shot down in North Vietnam and ends when he is released from captivity in the spring of 1973.
Q. Without giving anything away, is there one moment or piece of dialogue from the show that you think is key to understanding the man you play?
McMeen: In his opening line, Millet confesses to being a deserter, but not the way one would expect. Millet deserted in October 1941 so that he could get into the war, not escape from it.
The U.S. did not enter the war until the bombing of Pearl Harbor (Dec. 7, 1941). Millet deserted so he could join the Canadian Army. He was disheartened by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pledges to keep the U.S. out of the war. This is somebody who really wanted to fight! This makes him a great warrior, but also makes him problematic as a hero, as we see later on in his monologue.
Sites: “I got to be quite a thorn in their side. As a consequence, I got handled roughly.”
Q. Has your own military experience influenced how you are approaching “Beyond Glory”?
McMeen: Yes it has. I was attracted to Millet because there was a time in my life when I wanted to grow up to be just like him! That is, like many young men, I thought that being a soldier was all about fighting and destroying the enemy. I felt that killing our nation’s foes would be the epitome of manliness and glory. (McMeen was an Army field artillery officer and retired as a major.)
Popular culture reinforces these romantic notions about combat. This is, of course, mostly a deception, designed to persuade young people to engage in the horrible, grisly, sometimes necessary task of fighting and dying for one’s country. Nearly everyone who experiences combat is repulsed by it.
But there are those who kind of enjoy it. Millet was apparently someone who enjoyed it. How should we feel about him? Is he still a hero? The other guys in the play did the heroics out of a deep sense of duty and devotion to their comrades, and did it in spite of their fear and repulsion. Millet appears to be in it, at least partly, for the joy of sticking bayonets into people. Fighting is not an ugly but necessary means to restore peace. Rather he finds it something to enjoy for its own sake.
I think I would still rate Millet a hero, but I believe his heroism is diminished because he’s having such a good time at it. Still, if we have to go on fighting wars, it will be handy to have a few guys like Lewis Millet around.
Sites: I was a Marine Naval Aviator in South Vietnam, flying the same type aircraft at the same time Stockdale was shot down. He was a very respected and experienced senior officer and his loss was widely known and felt in the Naval community.
His continued dedicated performance above and beyond the call of duty while under extreme duress for 71/2 years is one as to inspire admiration and respect in someone who has had a career in the military and has operated in some of the situations he endured.
I hope to be able to inspire the spirit of the man I portray. It is interesting to note that during the time of his imprisonment I spent two years in the U.S., returned to Vietnam for a year, went home, got married and fathered a boy.
Q. Why are these important stories to tell, and what do you want the audience to be thinking about after seeing the play?
McMeen: The importance of the stories is obvious. These are people who willingly placed duty and country before self, even at the cost of their own lives. They remind us that there are things more important than life itself. Their example certainly merits our admiration and reflection. As to what people should be thinking, I suppose everyone should figure that out for themselves.
Sites: These are true stories about ordinary people who were called upon at some point in their lives to do extraordinary things. I would hope that these stories would urge viewers to better understand the lives of those we rely on for safety and security to include police, fire and so many other public servants.