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July 05, 2007
By Simi Horwitz
Clad in his sailor's uniform, cap in hand, Christopher Carter Sanderson looks at the two soldiers in fatigues and wants to know who the ranking officer is: Gerald Della Salla or Monroe Mann? Informed that Mann is a first lieutenant, Sanderson salutes him. Mann grins. "At ease, sailor," he says.

The interchange is more serious than playful, though the sense of something theatrical transpiring is evident as well. Sanderson, Della Salla, and Mann are in the armed forces, but they are also theatre men.

Sanderson, 42, is artistic director of the 15-year-old Gorilla Repertory Theater Company, known for its high-octane productions of Shakespeare in New York City's parks. The St. Louis–born director—a descendent of Martha Washington—is a sailor in the U.S. Navy Reserve and expects to ship out in mid-July, one week after his production of Henry V bows in Riverside Park.

Mann, 29, served in Iraq for 11 months in 2005, from January to November. A Port Chester, N.Y., native, he has appeared Off-Off-Broadway and in independent films. He has written several motivational books on the business of acting, including The Theatrical Juggernaut (The Psyche of the Star), in addition to running a production company and a business school called Unstoppable Artists.

Della Salla, 38, a 1992 graduate of NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, has appeared Off-Broadway and in several independent films. Born in Morris County, N.J., he served as a sergeant at the Abu Ghraib prison from December 2004 to December 2005.

They are, by their own admission, anomalies: artists who have chosen to enlist in the armed forces and serve in Iraq. It's impossible to determine the precise number of actors in the military, but Sanderson, Mann, and Della Salla are not alone: 1st Lt. Lynette Jones, 34, has been serving in Iraq since September 2006. Based in Los Angeles, she has appeared on Homicide: Life on the Street and ER, among other TV programs. She was interviewed by phone from Camp Taji, where she is currently stationed.

Their reasons for enlisting vary. Della Salla cites Sept. 11. "I was 10 years into the business of acting, and my priorities simply changed," he says. "The future of the country seemed more important than my career. I was especially impressed with the firemen who put their lives on the line. I thought about being a fireman. I still wanted to act, but I figured I could do it in my spare time."

He found that at 32 he was too old to qualify as a firefighter. "So I chose another way to support my country…. I joined the Army Reserve in March of 2002, committing myself to eight years of service. After nine weeks of basic training, we went back to our civilian lives, although we had bimonthly visits at our recruitment office and two weeks of annual training. By the time I completed advanced training—November of 2002 through April 2003—the country was at war and I was preparing to be a soldier."

Della Salla continues, "Though most theatre people I knew may not have agreed with my views, no one was confrontational. If anything, they were supportive. Even my agents with whom I was freelancing were supportive. They sent me care packages. I was a man of theatre who was going to theatre: the theatre of war."

Sanderson was also deeply affected by Sept. 11, not just personally but professionally. At the time of the attacks, Gorilla Rep's production of Henry V was slated to go up at the World Financial Center. The loss of that space was the beginning of the end for his troupe. "People moved away, they were demoralized, and the company fell apart for four years," recalls Sanderson, a registered independent and socialist. "I realized that the artistic rights and freedom we have—in fact, my entire career—had been put under direct attack. Almost immediately I started looking for those military branches that would accept me." As with Della Salla, his age was a problem.

In the interim, Sanderson enrolled in the Yale School of Drama, where he earned a master's degree in directing. Yet the events of Sept. 11 continued to haunt him, despite the country's growing disaffection with the war. His age notwithstanding, he was able to enlist in the Navy Reserve in January 2005, during his final semester at Yale.

Sanderson's advanced education and high test scores opened doors for him, he says: "Some questions were raised about my motivation because of my theatre background. I had to prove my dedication. I did very well in boot camp, and I'm rated expert on the M-16 rifle. I expect to see action. I want to see action." He also expects to earn some real money as an enlisted man in a combat zone and plans to contribute about $20,000 to the now revitalized Gorilla Rep when he returns. "I believe I'll be activated for approximately a year, during which time nine months or so will be spent serving overseas," he says. "The Navy's mission may change, but I made a six-year commitment, and I expect to recommit when the time comes, God willing."

Sanderson is keenly aware that his mission is dangerous and there's always the possibility he won't return. Quoting Hamlet, he observes, "If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all."

Not all the actors cite Sept. 11 as their motivation. Jones admits, "I did it for the education and the chance to be in a leadership position. Before I enlisted, I pursued acting, but unless you have a rich husband, you need job security. My friends in the theatre couldn't believe I wanted to do this. They felt, 'No way!' But I saw serving in the military as a whole lot better than being a waitress or doing temp jobs." She adds that she supports America's goals in Iraq.

Jones joined the Army Reserve in 1997 following four years in the Navy and works in human resources, overseeing more than 15,000 soldiers. After her tour of duty ends, she expects to earn a master's degree in criminal justice—paid for by the G.I. Bill—and use it to supplement her acting and her marketing business, which, among other things, creates 30-minute promotional videos for actors (

Mann has the most unusual story of all, insisting that the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan changed his life's direction. "It was the soldiers' sense of purpose—and willingness to sacrifice their lives for a greater good—that hit me so profoundly," he says. "I was pursuing acting and doing well, but I felt empty. After seeing Private Ryan, it struck me that they gave up their dreams so that I could pursue mine. And they didn't have a choice. They were drafted. I joined the National Guard in 1999 for an eight-year commitment, never believing I would be deployed. I just wanted to do this, and it wasn't for the benefits or college education or anything like that."

Like men and women in the Army and Navy reserves, those in the National Guard train periodically and are called to active duty only during a crisis. "My actor friends and colleagues were shocked, but I was not ostracized by them," Mann says. "It was the agents and casting directors who had reservations about my doing this. They said, 'You have to make up your mind: You either want to be an actor or a soldier. People struggle for years in order to have an acting career.' "

By the time he was called to active duty in May 2004, Mann had no doubt about his priorities. His military comrades, however, were apprehensive when they found out he was an actor. "Telling them I was in the theatre was almost like a gay guy coming out in the Army," he says. "That's what it felt like, and initially they wondered if I was gay. They weren't sure what I was doing there. They didn't think I was prepared. But that view changed."

Mann's demonstrated skill is what changed it. "My job was to train the 4th Iraqi Army's divisional intelligence section. I taught them how to read and plot maps, how to conduct interrogations…and how to locate and defeat terrorist cells," he says matter-of-factly. "I also acted as the military-police adviser at division headquarters. I helped them set up a perimeter defense plan, showed them how to search incoming vehicles for bombs, how to prevent car bombs from attacking the compound, and how to process detainees."

He also shared horrific experiences with his comrades. "I was often the combat patrol leader, and anytime you were in a vehicle, you were considered on a combat mission. Mortars and rockets were constantly raining down on us, whether we were on the roads or hiding in concrete bunkers. We wore body armor into the mess hall. Not one day went by without a mortar attack on our camps. During one 550-mile convoy from Kuwait to Tikrit, I was the lead vehicle commander and navigator for a convoy of over 55 vehicles. I was on a mission to retrieve an intelligence report, and we encountered seven rocket attacks, three ambushes, and four improvised explosive devices—those are roadside bombs. We were all praying together."

Nominated for a Bronze Star, Mann says he would not have survived had he not been an actor, suggesting his theatre background gave him the ability to maintain his sense of humor. During his tour he shot 60 hours of footage with the intention of creating a comic documentary. "I was not making fun of war but of the situation," he says. "I have an interview with an Iraqi officer who addressed Oprah on camera. He said, 'We watch you all the time. My wife loves you.' Who would have thought?"

Equally important, Mann's life in the theatre has made it possible for him to voice his feelings about his military experiences, "though I still get scared out of my mind at a loud sudden noise," he says. "I don't go to July 4th celebrations. If a waiter drops a glass, I jump. But I do think it's easier for me because I can talk about it."

Della Salla also believes that his background as an actor has served as a "coping mechanism": "Of course I viewed the events around me as real. Being shot at and getting hurt was real. But at the same time, I could see myself playing a soldier in a play. In addition, I'd try to view every experience as something I could later use as an actor, including the times I lost close friends in action, in one case just down the road from where I was." He pauses. "It didn't always work. I also kept a journal, including interviews with other soldiers, who talked about their experiences. That helped me."

Like Mann, Della Salla videotaped the events around him, in his case as a way to archive the miseries and absurdity of war: "I'm now pulling together those interviews for a book, which will also include a DVD insert based on the videos I shot."

As lead medical administrator at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison, Della Salla arrived following the 2004 scandal in which Iraqi prisoners were abused by American soldiers. His unit was told they were there to "restore America's honor," he recalls. "But the insurgency used the scandal as an excuse to attack us. The day the pope died—April 2, 2005—my base was under attack by 150 insurgents. Their mission was to break free the detainees, and our mission was to prevent that and at the same time treat the patients. I remember running across the quad to shuttle medical supplies from one point to another with bullets dancing in front of us, explosions knocking us down. My commander was caught in a wave of mortar blasts; he was seriously hurt. I pulled him into a secure area and got him back to the E.R." Della Salla was also injured in the attack, and each man received a Combat Action Badge for his performance that night. The commander earned a Purple Heart as well, and Della Salla is under review for the award.

"All I can say is that war is nothing like the movies," he says. "Looking back now, I can see its dramatic potential, but when you're fighting for survival, you really aren't thinking about that—just protecting your buddy and defending your life."

Della Salla's unit was curious about him. "They looked me up on Google to see my acting credits," he says. "And the commanders tried to use my skills as an actor when visiting generals showed up and they needed someone to describe our mission in detail. They assumed I was good at public speaking."

It was also assumed he was an authority on Shakespeare. "In my spare time I became friendly with an Iraqi-born interpreter who was on the base with us," he says. "This kid was really smart but not educated. He said, 'Sergeant D., I want to read Chak-es-peare.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'The man who spoke to the angels.' He had looked me up on Google and thought I was the one to introduce him to Shakespeare. I was flattered, but I didn't want to be distracted from my mission. I was a soldier."

Jones also sees herself as a soldier first but admits she has used her acting skills in Iraq. "It's all very much like performing on stage, especially when you're sounding off commands or conducting a briefing," she says. "I'm aware that I'm playing a role. I'm also aware of my articulation and projection. I have a mirror in my office and I rehearse body gestures in front of it. I get into character. Most soldiers are afraid of me, but they also respect me. Gender is not an issue. I'm a female, I'm a commander, and I'm an actor. The acting they don't quite believe. They say to me, 'How can you be an officer and an actor too?' " She says they're fascinated by the fact that she appeared on Homicide.

"Serving in Iraq has made me more self-confident," Jones says. "I'm not giving up acting, but my goal is to make one-star general."

Though Sanderson has not yet served on active duty, he does not rule out a career in the military: "The only thing that's expected of me is the unexpected."

Mann does not have any further military ambitions, but he could be called to active duty again. "It's not the going that bothers me; it's the leaving," he says. "My life was already turned upside down once, and since I run my own businesses, I can't afford to have them go under a second time."

Still, Mann has no regrets about having served. "It's not reported, but the Iraqis love us," he says. "Over the course of a year in three different cities, citizens and soldiers came up to us and thanked us for liberating them from Saddam and freeing them from fear. Iraq is more dangerous now, but at least they have the freedom of speech and assembly. Before the war, there were no private newspapers or TV stations. Now there are hundreds."

The experience of war and the constant reminder that he might return in a flag-draped coffin have made Mann seize the day with renewed vigor. Along with editing his documentary about Iraq, he is busy raising funds for his first feature film, In the Wake, set in the world of wakeboarding. Mann says everything he has done since his return has been "inspired by my experiences in war. If you can get through that, you can get through anything. You learn there are no regrets and no excuses. And no one cares what you're feeling. You just have to get the job done."

Della Salla echoes that view, noting that Iraq is never far from his thoughts. He also knows he may be called back. "In the beginning I was gung ho about all of it," he says. "And I was an ambitious little G.I. I'd still like to believe that what we're doing in Iraq will have a good effect, but after a country has lived a certain way for 6,000 years, I'm not sure they're going to know what to do with freedom."

Della Salla has also rethought his personal goals. The turning point came two weeks after he returned from Iraq and went to a commercial audition. "It was macabre," he says. "Here I was, sitting around with actors who were busy as bees—talking about their careers and auditions, chatting away on their cell phones…. I just felt like saying, 'Do you have any understanding of what's going on in the world?'

"I then had to go on camera," he continues. "Because I had been wearing a helmet in Iraq, I still had tan lines where the straps had been. The casting director stared at the lines and said, 'You really should be careful. Use sunblock on your vacation.' I was ready to bust a gut. I said, 'Yeah, yeah, I'll remember that for my next vacation.' "

Della Salla adds, "Someday I may have to portray a soldier, and I'm hesitant. I will not promote the image of soldiers as bloodthirsty individuals. We're just doing a job and in constant danger. I want to make sure soldiers are presented in films and TV programs with honor. That doesn't mean I'm an advocate of war, but I do want to help communicate the soldier's experience. It's especially important in the entertainment industry, where snap judgments are made. I hope to go back to acting at some point—but not now. I'd rather come in as a military consultant." <


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