Thursday, October 31, 2019

Soldier stories that inspired an opera

Opera Memphis production of The Falling and the Rising. Photo by Ziggy Mack.
The Falling and the Rising is a new American opera. It explores the sacrifice, duty, and human connection experienced by members of the armed services and is based on interviews and true stories from dozens of Army veterans. The story is told by an unnamed female soldier. After being injured in a roadside attack, she is placed in an induced coma. In her dreamlike state she encounters fellow service members who share their stories with her.

Below, meet three of the real soldiers who helped inspire the opera. 

Stephanie Johnson photo by Mark Reis and EJ Hersom.

Army Specialist Stephanie Johnson

“As a naturally athletic child in Toledo, Ohio, Stephanie Johnson participated in practically every  sport. Today, the 29-year-old says she’s more active than ever, despite—or rather because of—a leg  amputation in 2016. ‘I have a left femur fracture and I am a right leg amputee, but that doesn’t stop me,’ Johnson says. In fact, ‘it pushes me more.’ Johnson, a U.S. Army specialist, competed in five sports at the 2018 Warrior Games, taking home a silver medal in powerlifting. The Warrior Games  are an adaptive sports competition for wounded, ill, and injured service members and veterans.  ‘My injuries don’t define me,’ Johnson says. ‘I define my injuries.’ That means they are the impetus— and never the excuse. Johnson was wounded in June 2013, while serving in Bagram, Afghanistan.  The injury was most intense for the lower half of her body—her left femur was fractured and her right leg was severely damaged. After three years of limb salvage attempts and constant pain, she made the decision to amputate her right leg below the knee in hopes of a better quality of life.  Within a year of her amputation, Johnson learned how to run with her prosthetic leg. It was a major milestone on several fronts. ‘When I first got injured, people told me I would never run again. But I’m all about proving people wrong.’ She now lives in Arlington, Virginia, and breaks a sweat nearly every day at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, hitting the gym on her own five days a week. She also plays basketball, volleyball, and tennis with the center’s adaptive sports teams.”
—Jenny McCoy, Self magazine 

Jeremy Haynes at his home in Fort Belvoir, Virginia. Photo by Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

Retired Major Jeremy Haynes

“…After I was shot four times in Afghanistan I was told I would  never walk again, would never have feeling below my waist—if I  even survived. I felt paralyzed, physically and mentally, as though  my ability to be a man was gone. Depression and thoughts of  suicide threatened to keep me at the bottom forever. My amazing wife and phenomenal healthcare providers were there to catch me and keep pushing me forward. I learned that psychological care is  key to recovery from both invisible and physical wounds. Today, I  no longer carry my burdens alone.”
—Jeremy Haynes

Excerpt from Haynes’ testimonial for The Real Warriors Campaign, which encourages help-seeking  behavior among service members, veterans, and military families coping with invisible wounds.

Top left: Tyler McGibbon and his service dog Tropper. Photo by Elizabeth Brumley. Bottom left: McGibbon's service dog Trooper. Right: Tyler McGibbon performs with U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Jonathon McPherson, on keyboard after undergoing music therapy. Photo by Airman 1st Class Emma James, 11th Wing Public Affairs.

Retired Sergeant Tyler McGibbon

“Tyler had this incredible story about what his coma experience was like. … We leaned into that story right off the bat and knew that was going to be the arc of the piece: the idea of a liminal space inhabited by the mind of a soldier in an induced coma. It allowed us the freedom to interject different voices, different stories, different narratives.”
—Jerre Dye, The Falling and the Rising librettist

In 2014, Sgt. Tyler McGibbon was involved in a Humvee rollover accident in Kuwait that resulted in a severe traumatic brain injury. He underwent multiple surgeries and remained in a coma for three months. From 2015 to 2017, he faced additional surgeries and 2,482 therapy appointments—including music and art therapies. Today, at his home in Toms River township, New Jersey, he continues therapy with his service dog Trooper. “If I could do it again, I wouldn’t change one thing. That’s the most important factor of joining the military, becoming someone better than you were the day before,” McGibbon says.

The Falling and the Rising plays at the Opera Center (363 Mercer St.) Nov. 15–24, 2019.
Tickets & info: