Combat Hippies, a theater troupe that brings veterans to the stage

Iraqi war veteran Anthony Torres believes storytelling can help bring out people’s artistic side and allow them to confront the hurt in their lives. In fact, he’s done it.

At a virtual workshop sponsored by the Jewish Museum of South Florida – FIU, Torres explained with smiles and engaging questions how storytelling helped him overcome his post-war traumas and created a safe space for others to do the same. 

Torres is part of a theater group called Combat Hippies that became a company in summer 2016.

Torres said the troupe’s six members consider themselves people who share love and support through writing in the search for inner peace. Because they’ve all been in combat and share the same mission, they call themselves Combat Hippies.

Torres, a 40-year-old, born and raised New Yorker of Puerto Rican background, fought in the Iraq war from 2004 to 2005. He was deployed at 23 years old.

He comes to Combat Hippies with experience in both writing and psychology. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and master’s degrees in psychology and social work. He works as a readjustment counselor at the Pompano Beach Vet Center.

That background shows throughout his performances.

“I think the flip side of relating to someone who has been through traumatic experiences is that we’ve all lived to tell a story and there’s some beauty in that,” he said in a telephone interview. “Writing is as personal or as social as you choose it to be and, personally, I love to share mine.”

The Jewish Museum workshop focused on how writing and storytelling can steer people toward healing. Torres asked the audience about storytellers that inspired them, their thoughts on storytelling and even encouraged them to practice it during the workshop. 

He said that anyone can be a storyteller and demonstrated how storytelling can help people work through trauma.

Luna Goldberg, who organized the event, said Torres was a perfect fit for the writing portion of the museum’s #bewell series, which centers around healing.

“Anthony is an incredible human and performance artist in Miami’s community,” she said. “He has this tremendous background and story.”

This deployment marked a turning point.

“That year in Iraq was horrible, it sucked, it was sad, it was scary,” he said. “But during that year I also learned I’m way more capable than I gave myself credit for.”

Upon leaving the army, he moved to Miami and realized that his love for writing could be a useful coping mechanism after an older couple he shared his war stories with, encouraged him to start writing about his time in the war. 

While working at the VA Miami Health Care center, he hosted an open mike night with O, Miami, a Miami literary organization, where he read his poems.

People at Miami-Dade College heard about the event and recruited him to lead creative writing workshops aimed at other veterans. 

He and noted Miami actor and director, Teo Castellanos, along with four other veterans, founded Combat Hippies a few months later. Torres became the executive director, while Castellanos is the artistic director. 

Torres said people tell him they’d like to hear about his wartime experiences.

He has found that some simply want to learn about things that aren’t discussed often. Others relate to his stories and use them to push through their own problems. 

He said one of his performances helped a veteran connect with his family after he came home from war because the show helped the family understand his struggles. Similarly, in another performance, a veteran was able to tell her sister that she was sexually abused while deployed. 

“Our performances give people a platform to tell their story and help others understand their pain,” he said. “We all literally started tearing up in a performance when we saw an audience member emotional.” 

In their most recent popular theater piece “Amal”, the group screamed, jumped and used music production to symbolize the chaos and pain war creates, which affects people of color that are both combatants and non-combatants.

They use the stage to show how they feel about their time in war.

Participants at the Jewish Museum workshop shared personal stories both by talking and writing. 

Through tears, Lena Gonzales, a 39-year-old veteran who attended the workshop, shared a poem she wrote during the workshop about the pain of her divorce.

Gonzales had shared her poetry in front of people before and was inspired to continue doing so after learning that Torres started with no experience as a performer and quickly grew as an artist who performs nationally.

“He inspired me to bring out my creativity more,” she said. “This workshop has made me want to perform my own things too.”

Torres said his performances show how creative writing can build a tight-knit community and take sustenance from reaching participants. 

“More than anything, there’s a feeling of accomplishment and fulfillment from doing a good show,” he said.

Shantel Sanchez is a senior at Florida International University studying to become a broadcast journalist. She enjoys traveling and going to the beach with her family. Another one of her passions is marketing, as she enjoys learning about the field and the strategies that are used.