The lives of more than 15 Cabarrus County veterans have been woven together to create an original production for and about local military veterans.
"Paying Tribute" will combine dramatic stage readings with a vocal ensemble, iconic popular music, sound effects and other media to tell the stories of Cabarrus-area veterans who served in WWII, the Korean War and Vietnam. The show will run March 18-20 at Old Courthouse Theatre in Concord.
The performances are part of the Cabarrus County Library's One Book-One Community program, which for the last three years has collaborated with Old Courthouse Theatre to offer a play that fits the theme of the book. This year's book, "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien, is a collection of fictionalized stories from Vietnam.
Anne Wilson, longtime theater volunteer and producer of the show, looked for a fitting play but decided most were too disturbing before choosing to put on an original production. Anne's daughter, Heather Wilson, recently returned to Concord after getting her master's in directing from the University of Memphis. She is the writer and director of the show.
With the help of others, they organized, recorded and transcribed about 14 hours of conversations between 17 Cabarrus area veterans who met during a series of story circles. The topics were funny and, at times, horrifying, said Heather, but helped convey a community during three very different wars. The discussions were edited down, turned into a script and set to music from each era.
"The World War II guys would start talking, or the Vietnam guys would start talking and they would ask each other questions," said Anne, a lifelong Concord resident. "World War II was rough but the vets were better taken care of when they came home. Korean vets are kind of like the forgotten veterans. Vietnam veterans ... didn't come home as heroes, they came home ashamed of what they did even though they only did what they were ordered to do."
Mike Stubbs, 63, a Charlotte native and Harrisburg resident for seven years, sat in on some of the story circles and shared his accounts of serving in the Army as an infantry sergeant squad leader in Vietnam.
"(He) was a 'tunnel rat,'" said Anne, recalling his stories. "He was a small-built man and he explained there were tunnels, caves and caverns all throughout Vietnam that had been there for years. Those soldiers would crawl into those tunnels to get the enemy out. He went into some and said they expanded out into a full hospital with beds and everything. That's something I knew nothing about.
"I'm hoping (audiences) will have an appreciation for what these guys did and what they gave up - because many of them were 18 years old or younger."
Stubbs turned 20 in Vietnam and with 17 days to go on his first tour, he was shot in the neck by .30 caliber carbine. The Purple Heart recipient left the Army in 1968 when he was 21.
"The guys that did that job volunteered to do that," said Stubbs, who regularly stepped up to be a "tunnel rat" in part because of his childhood fascination with the 1957 film, "Journey to the Center of the Earth."
"You didn't know who was going to be in there when you got in that tunnel," he said. "Some folks thought we were a little crazy. But that movie always fascinated me and it's why I did it."
Stubbs is one of nearly 100 members of Charlotte's Military Order of the Purple Heart, which is the only military organization sanctioned by Congress. Members help area veterans through various projects while spreading the word about the Purple Heart, an honor given to soldiers who are wounded while serving in the military.
"They're doing something that should have been done a long time ago," said Stubbs. "There are a lot of fellows who don't talk about what they did, so this kind of stuff needs to happen to pay tribute. I'm really proud of them. I hope I can handle watching it because I get to talking about some of this stuff and I get emotional."
This will be Jon Bowlby's second main stage performance for Old Courthouse Theatre. The 41-year-old from Albemarle tells a story of Paul Juneau of Concord. A former Marine, he said audiences will appreciate the production's authenticity.
In the show, Bowlby tells a story of a U.S. Marine and Korean War veteran who fought in the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, a famous conflict that took place in November 1950. Night temperatures were so cold that soldiers literally froze to their weapons.
"People will relate to it just out of it being a true and honest story," said Bowlby. "I talk about a guy who went to Korea and did what he had to do for his country. The most shocking thing about it would be the conditions they had to endure. It was 30-below zero and they were trying to win a war in it."
Bowlby said he hopes to meet the veteran he portrays in the readings, simply to convey his thanks.
"First and foremost, as a Marine myself, to meet somebody that was actually in the 'Frozen Chosin' and served in Korea would be an absolute honor," he said.