Command Sgt. Maj. Dave Dunckel had many different jobs during his 25-year career in the Army. But in the spring of 2006 the Army asked him to do something that changed his life.
They asked him to notify a family in Eagle, Michigan, that their 19-year-old son had been killed in Iraq.
“It was horrible,” he says.
As he drove home that night, the 48-year-old Dunckel decided he couldn’t go back to a desk job in the Army. He resigned his position, and volunteered for an individual deployment.
Three months later, Dunckel found himself in Iraq as an embedded advisor with the Iraqi army.
Out on convoy patrols, he rode in the turret of the lead Humvee. He had a good view of Baghdad, yes, but it also made him a constant target. In addition to bullets, he had to lookout for things like piano wire strung across the road meant to decapitate him as he drove by.
Eventually, his vehicle took a hit from an Improvised Explosive Device.
He doesn’t remember much, except that everything went white, and he temporarily lost his hearing.
“My vehicle was destroyed," recalls Dunckel. “I think I got a TBI (traumatic brain injury) out of it.”
He says after that, he just got the feeling that just know you’re on borrowed time. When he would go out on missions after that, "I would repeat ‘Hail Marys’ and ‘Our Fathers’ over, and over again."
When he did get back home, Dunckel was angry and scarred. He had witnessed war - what he calls “the bottom of humanity.”
Then he began to self-medicate.
“I literally found myself doing things like putting a bottle of whiskey between my legs and driving country roads at 100 m.p.h., drinking out of a bottle of Jack Daniels driving as fast as I could into a field - just to get that adrenaline rush.”
He tried a couple different treatment programs, but they really didn’t do much for him. But then in the fall of 2015, he was asked to share his war experiences on stage for The Telling Project.
The idea was intimidating at first. He thought he’d regret being so vulnerable in front of an audience of theatergoers. But eventually, he agreed.
When it came time for Dave Dunckel to tell his story on opening night, he finally cracked the tough, Army guy facade he had hiding behind for so long.
Dunckel says that night, he literally had to stop midway through his story.
“I felt this instant bond between everybody that was out there listening to it, and what I was actually trying to say,” Dunckel recalls. “And it was like, like I quit acting. Finally. After all the roles I played, playing myself was my ticket out.”
Bert Goldstein is the director of a similar production called ReEntry. The show tells the true stories of Marine vets, their families, and the struggle to reintegrate back into society once combat is over.
Even though Dave Dunckel isn’t a professional actor, when Goldstein saw him perform he asked him if he’d consider acting in his show. Dunckel agreed. All the other players in ReEntry are professional actors.
Goldstein says theater has the power to personalize stories that we’ve all heard.
“I think one of the examples that I always use is, we can talk about the Holocaust and the millions of people that died in the Holocaust,” he says. “But when we tell the Anne Frank story, it becomes much more personal.”
But unlike the Holocaust and Anne Frank, Goldstein says ReEntry offers a sense of hope.
“There will be a military audience who will find seeing this cathartic,” says Goldstein. “I think the other audience is somebody like me, who knows very little about the military, knows very little about the military experience, and yet it’s very eye opening to see what happens when they come home and what they’re going through.”
Dave Dunckel says he’s acting in ReEntry for the approximately 22 veterans who are committing suicide every day. He believes most of them are killing themselves because they’re not telling their story. They’re internalizing the pain, anger and confusion. That's what he did for five years.
“It’s not tough to keep it all in - that’s weak. The toughest thing that you can do is bare it,” says Dunckel. “That’s a lot harder than keeping it inside. But it’s also the only way you’ll get any benefit out of it.”
You can see Dave Dunckel in ReEntry this Sunday evening at the City Opera House in Traverse City.