As Sandra W. Lee walked onto the stage, she kept a small, folded piece of paper tucked inside her bra beneath her costume. On it, she had scribbled her stage directions.
Lee was starring in the Off-Broadway drama Bullet Catchers, which played at the Judson Memorial Church in New York City from July 20 to Aug. 5. She had already performed the show multiple times, but had to carry a cheat sheet because of a brain injury she suffered during a deployment to Iraq.
You see, theater is a second act for Lee, who previously served as a staff sergeant in the United States Army's special operations command. She still suffers from memory loss, severe headaches, night terrors, and post-traumatic stress disorder. She's been homeless and suicidal. At one point, she was on more than a dozen medications.
Now a civilian, Lee works as an actress. She was attracted to Bullet Catchers, a play about the first mixed-gender infantry division in the U.S. Army, because it focused on the struggles female service members encounter in gaining acceptance and achieving leadership roles in the military. It also touches on how sexual trauma and PTSD can affect them — something she can personally relate to.
"It's like having to fight to prove yourself and then getting there, having all these things happen to me and then feeling like I wasn't even worthy to be alive," she says.
The play, named after the slang word for infantrymen, was the culmination of a nearly two-year process by creators Maggie Moore and Julia Sears, who also directed. Through the play, Sears and Moore say they strived to portray female service members and veterans in a way that raises their profile among the public and allows them to see themselves accurately represented in the arts.
"When you think of any pop culture representation of the military, it's all men," Moore says. "These women have never been shown to be powerful and flawed and high-ranking and just good at their jobs."
The team interviewed more than 30 veterans and active service members in all five branches of the military and who served in eras as far back as Vietnam. Lee was one of three cast members who served and contributed personal experiences to the script.
While conducting interviews, Sears was struck by how different each person's experience was, depending on their branch, when they served, and their personal background. "I don't think a lot of civilians understand how rich that part of military culture is," Sears says.
Bullet Catchers is set in the near future, and follows an infantry unit led by a lesbian lieutenant colonel who hides her personal life for fear that prejudice could affect her career. She's tasked with sending a mixed-gender infantry unit to Turkey, amidst criticism.
"War is not a women's studies course," one naysayer argues in the play.
The team wanted to get across the message that women have served on battlefields for much longer than many people might realize, Lee says, citing Joan of Arc and ancient female warriors as examples. In more recent history, female service members like Lee deployed to combat zones, in various capacities — in intelligence, as medics, or in support roles, to name a few examples — but they were prohibited from officially serving in combat arms jobs (like infantry and artillery) until 2016.
This year has brought a rapid progression in opportunities for women. In February, the 198th infantry brigade announced the creation of its first mixed-gender unit, and three months later, 18 women graduated from infantry training at Fort Benning in Georgia.
"Women have been in combat since the beginning of time and it's not since recently that it's been officially recognized, and there's still opposition to it," says Lee. "People have this weird idea that this is a new thing." Some of that opposition comes from the current administration. President Trump's election gave the creative team a sense of urgency, Sears says. During the campaign, audio from a 2014 interview with Trump's biographer surfaced, in which the president referred to women in the military as "bedlam." Also unearthed was a 1999 article penned by Vice President Mike Pence for the Indiana radio show he worked for at the time. In it, he called women in the military a "bad idea."
"[The election] reminded us very intensely of how important the story we were telling is," Sears says. "It was a brutal reminder of how far we still have to go."
In preparing for the play, the cast and creative team traveled to Fort Dix in New Jersey, where they received tactical training and a tour with female airmen. Sears recalled asking an officer what she believes holds women back from leadership roles in the military. "With no pause, [the officer] said, 'the assumption is that we're weak and that we can't lead,'" Sears says.
They hope the play — and others like it — can change that.
"Stories are the most basic thing that we can relate to, and stories bring out a lot of our empathy," says Moore. "There's nothing more important than seeing yourself represented back to you."
For Lee, the benefits of the play are more personal. She has been acting and singing since she was a child, but only recently has she been able to take on roles that so closely mirror her experience. She said she's now in a better place to work through her emotional trauma on stage.
"In the beginning I used theater as form of escapism because I hated who I was," she says. "But as I was finding myself again and coming to terms with everything, theater eventually became a place of solace and a place of healing and therapy for me."
Empowered in her role as a war goddess and with her stage directions close to her heart, she took center stage and raised her sword.
With a booming voice, she delivered her opening monologue: "What must I do for you to see me?"