This is the kind of story that gets a reporter excited.
This Friday, a small Indianapolis theater will premiere a play that tells the tragic story of an Indianapolis soldier's suicide in Iraq. Since the soldier's death two years ago, his father has been on a mission to change an unwritten White House policy that prohibits the president from sending condolence letters to families of soldiers who have committed suicide. In 2010, the play becomes a part of that mission and, finally, a month before opening night, July 5, the grieving father hears from the White House: the policy will be changed: Families of military suicides in war zones will be acknowledged by the president.
This story is true. It is local with the possibility of national impact. It demonstrates a perverse injustice and art's power not just to imitate life but to change it. It also makes a reporter ask, "How can I be excited about a story that begins with a suicide?"
The excitement began for me in June with an e-mail from Yvonne Brandenburg, pastor of Fountain Square's Church Within and overseer of Theatre Non Nobis (formerly known as Theater Within). Her one-page note outlined the issues behind the play in a breathless, run-on stream: the death of 25-year-old Army Specialist Chancellor Keesling just two weeks into his second tour of duty; the attention his story is getting from the media and the White House; his dad Gregg Keesling's unexpected brush with President Barack Obama in Indy; and her own letter to the White House suggesting that the condolence letter policy be changed in time for the play's opening.
"There's excitement to be part of change," acknowledges Brandenburg, later, in a phone interview. "But that's not what this is about. This is about Chance. It's about making his story hearable and bearable."
Chancellor Keesling's story is unusual in many ways and yet familiar to the countless parents who have watched their sons and daughters enlist with a mix of pride and dread. Keesling grew up first in Jamaica, his mother's native home, and then moved with his family to Indiana, where his father had strong Quaker roots. Despite his family's pacifist leanings, the duty-bound Lawrence North High School graduate wanted to serve his country during war.
Keesling was eager to help re-build Iraq, but his calls home in 2006 described a wide swing in duties and emotions. There was the maddening boredom of watching contractors from Romania change light bulbs, followed by the blinding fear of attack whenever his unit took to the road. When Keesling's young, stateside wife told him she wanted out of their marriage, the stress became unbearable. His fellow soldiers took his gun away and he was put on suicide watch.
After leaving the army in 2007, Keesling rebuilt his life in Indianapolis. He found a job and a girlfriend. He joined the army reserves and expected to fulfill his military obligations on the weekends and during natural disasters. In 2009, however, he was given orders to ship out with a 10-man unit from Ohio.
Within two weeks of landing in Iraq, Keesling had an argument with his girlfriend that rattled him once more. His new unit didn't know him well and knew nothing of his past suicide watch. There was no one to take his gun away this time. Army Specialist Chance Keesling shot himself and died on June 19, 2009.
It is two years since Gregg Keesling and his wife Janet flew to Dover, Maryland, to meet their son's flag-draped casket. It is two years since Gregg Keesling began telling anyone who would listen about his son's death and the rising numbers of military suicides. Army suicides rose from 87 in 2005 to 162 in 2009. Suicides in the Army National Guard and Reserves increased from 80 in 2009 to 145 in 2010.
"President Obama has said, 'I know the cost of war, because I must write a letter to every loved one,'" quotes Keesling. But, adds the troubled father, the president can never understand the cost of war, if he doesn't acknowledge military suicides.
Keesling expresses his ambivalence about the progress he is making toward change. In our June conversation, he is hopeful about the impact of a CBS news interview he just gave and a local public television documentary in the works for July. Still, he wonders, is his crusade putting his grief to good use or helping him to sidestep it?
Bringing it to the stage
The blurred vision of people caught up in a cause is center stage in Paul Amandes' play about the Keeslings, aptly named Trouble Shoot. Amandes, an associate professor of acting at Chicago's Columbia College, first learned about Chance Keesling's suicide through Chicago's Jackaloupe Theatre troupe, which asked Amandes and four other playwrights to write short plays based loosely on newspaper stories. Amandes chose a New York Times article about Gregg Keesling's mission to reverse the White House condolence letter policy.
"I was taken by the article," recalls Amandes. "Not only was Gregg making a big deal about this presidential condolence letter. So was The New York Times. I thought, 'Gosh, if my son got killed, I'm not sure a piece of paper would do a whole lot for me."
When Gregg Keesling heard about Amandes' 20-minute play from a friend in Chicago, he reached out to the playwright. Amandes was slow to respond, because he feared that his version of the Keesling's story, created mostly from his imagination, might be too harsh for the father too read. Amandes' play personifies Chancellor's gun as a woman, bent on giving the soldier a fatal kiss. It also suggests that the father's quest for a condolence letter has dangers of its own.
Back in Indianapolis, Keesling asked the Church Within's theater director to screen the script for him. (Keesling, who leads a nonprofit that helps prepare ex-offenders for the workplace, had worked with church members when they ran a prisoner mentoring program.) The artistic director, who wanted to produce Trouble Shoot in Indianapolis, quickly passed the script to Keesling. The father agreed that the play, though tough, was on the mark. Somehow, Amandes understood Chance's pain and also the Keeslings' struggles to find one "right" way to grieve.
When the Church Within asked Amandes to expand Trouble Shoot to two acts, he was reluctant. He had written historically-based theater before and grown weary of working with living protagonists. He decided to accept the commission, because he was intrigued by the story's paradoxes. Despite being a pacifist, Gregg Keesling pushed his son to complete his second tour in Iraq. Then, a year after campaigning for Obama's election in 2008, Keesling found himself campaigning against the Obama White House over the condolence letter policy.
As Amandes dove into research for the play, reading military records and conducting interviews, he felt a new pressure, to answer the ultimate question: Why did Chance take his life?
"The 'why' tends to haunt the people left behind," says Amandes. "People literally wanted me to answer the 'Why?'" In the first act, he covers the 'maybes.' Chance had brain surgery as a boy. Chance felt isolated on his second tour. The break-up might have been the last straw. Ultimately, says Amandes, Chance's life ended, because he was in the military. "He should be honored."
Note: This play will be produced by Chicago's Jackaloupe Theatre in 2012.