"Ajax in Iraq" Actor Discusses Firsthand Experience in Middle East War
Theatre SC’s first main stage production of the season, "Ajax in Iraq," transports audiences to the front lines of battle in the most recent Iraq War. For cast member Jon Whit McClinton, a veteran of that conflict, that battlefield is a place he’s experienced firsthand.
|Jon Whit McClinton|
McClinton, whose multiple roles in the play include portraying the mythic Greek hero Odysseus, served on active duty in the US Marine Corps from 2006-2010. In that time he was deployed twice to both Iraq and Afghanistan for a total of 25 months. After returning home, he served four more years as a reservist.
“I went to school after my basic training and combat training to become a fueler,” says McClinton. “That’s pretty much the guy who waits for aircraft to come in, and you fill them up. But if there’s not necessarily a need for that you’ll be reassigned to something else, so I was retrained to be convoy security personnel as a gunner. I was pretty much on top of a turret in a truck, and I would provide surveillance and protection to get to and from different areas.”
McClinton says that his job didn’t put him in direct battle often, but the awareness that hostilities could break out at any time was always present.
“You get into the mentality where you think you’re going to be hit every day, but it wasn’t like that,” he says. “Actually, that makes you a little more nervous because you have to be on your toes every day and not fall complacent. There could be ten to fifteen days were there are no incidents at all, then a string of days where they happen. I ran into hostilities here and there, but especially in Afghanistan, it was a little hotter.”
The anxiety of constant alertness, he says, was sometimes compounded by a lack of specific knowledge about each mission — and that’s all by design.
“As a private, it seems like things don’t make sense and a lot of things get thrown at you. But the one thing you don’t want to happen is to get into the mindset of questioning everything, because you’re trained to go through with the orders when they’re passed down. Honestly, it’s safer for your team. And, that’s where you have to get into the mindset where you’re thinking about more than yourself.”
Lessons of humility and learning to be part of a team carried over into his life after the service, informing his current experience as a theatre major at the University of SC. But, like many war veterans, adjusting to civilian life wasn’t an easy task.
“The play deals with this, and I can relate to it. I got home and definitely felt a different mindset from my family and the civilian world. I was shutting people out and closing people off. Things would frustrate me, like I’d hear someone complaining about not getting enough cream in their coffee and I would think, ‘Really? That’s what you care about? I’ve got people in Afghanistan losing legs and you’re worried about your coffee?’ It would literally upset me.”
“Some are lucky and don’t experience any disconnect, and some people experience very traumatic events. I know this one person who didn’t shoot one bullet because he was an administrative person, and suffered PTSD because he would have to do the paperwork about someone’s death or sending people out, and he would think, ‘I’m trained to fight and I’m just sitting here at this desk.’ Even that can be traumatic, to feel like you’re not doing your part.”
|Jon gets fitted for his Odysseus look in the costume shop by Valerie Pruett|
Getting help through the VA for his own PTSD diagnosis ultimately brought McClinton around to a more adjusted place and into the theatre program at the University, where he’s pursuing studies and stage experiences that he hopes will lead to an acting career. Since coming to the University as a transfer student from Central Carolina Technical College, McClinton has performed in three productions, including Yellowman and Status Update at the Lab Theatre, and Hamlet at Drayton Hall Theatre.
Asked for his unique perspective on what Ajax in Iraq gets right about the soldier’s experience, McClinton quickly answers that it’s the way the soldiers in the play talk that resonates as especially truthful. “A lot of the soldiers’ testimonials in the show sound like things I’ve said and thought and wondered,” he reveals. “It’s eerie that it’s so dead on, because in the moment you feel like you’re the only one asking questions, but in reality it’s part of the collective experience.”
“I really want the audience to take away the honesty of this show,” he adds. “You see the disconnection and distrust that can happen between soldiers and higher-ups, and still there’s this camaraderie and knowledge that the soldiers are going to protect each other no matter what. That becomes bigger than the mission itself.”
Ajax in Iraq will be performed October 3-11 at Longstreet Theatre, 1300 Greene St. Show times are 8pm Wednesday - Saturday, with additional 3pm matinees on Sunday, October 5 and Saturday, October 11. Tickets can be reserved by calling 803-777-2551, starting Friday, September 26.
For more information about Ajax in Iraq or the theatre program at the University of South Carolina, contact Kevin Bush by phone at (803)777-8353 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.