Not just any medal, but the Big Medal, the Congressional Medal of Honor? (NOTE: The correct name for this award is simply the "Medal of Honor," but it is colloquially known as and referred to throughout this play with "Congressional" appended to it.) Not surprisingly, being cited for extreme bravery rather than psychotic cruelty creates a disconnect for some, and Sgt. Dale (DJ) Jackson (Reginald Pierre) is one of them. He is institutionalized for "depression" when we meet him in this 1975 play by Tom Cole. Today, he would be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and his psychiatrist (Tom Kopp) does refer to him also suffering from "survivor's guilt" and "impacted grief."
The psychiatrist he's seeing on this day isn't his regular shrink, but a doctor who has come down from New York especially to see him at Valley Forge Army Hospital in Pennsylvania. The date is April 23, 1971. The play is based on the real story of Dwight H. Johnson, whose life trajectory after the war is depicted in what happens to DJ. At first, DJ resists this new guy, refusing to talk, telling him that he has all the information he needs in DJ's medical records, and so on. But gradually, he opens up and we learn what he did that concomitantly got him the Medal and landed him in the mental hospital. A young black man with a mother, brother and girlfriend back home in Detroit, Michigan, he joined the Army and was sent to Vietnam. He was assigned to a tank unit which didn't see much action for almost a year, although he witnessed atrocities perpetrated by U.S. soldiers on his very first day "in the country." (We're accustomed to the colloquial "in country," but that phrase is not used here.) One day, without knowing why, he was assigned to another tank, and that was when all hell broke loose and DJ became a mass murderer, a.k.a., war hero.
He was sent home after his experience but there was no fanfare, just a lot of questions he didn't answer. "Doc" asks him if there were parades in his honor as there had been for returning veterans of World War II, but of course, there were not. Quite the opposite, in fact, until one day two M.P.'s show up at his door and the next thing he knows he, his girl and his mother are on a plane to Washington where President Lyndon B. Johnson will preside over a ceremony and drape a medal over his new dress blues. Other men were honored that day, but we're only privy to what happened to this one, and some of it was good, and some of it, well, some of it is told in this story.
For obvious reasons, DJ clings to the Medal as a symbol of his significance in racially divided Detroit, a citation that sets him apart from the other black men from the ‘hood. At the heart of "Medal of Honor Rag" is a sense of racial tension so profound that DJ believes it will trigger the next war. Ironically, he refers to the Vietnamese as "little Chinese people in trees shooting at us." When the (white) doctor tells him that other returned soldiers banded together and destroyed their medals on the Capitol steps, he angrily acknowledges that he knows about that incident, but those men were all white. He would have no place among them, his own mind, or even his people, if it weren't for that Medal.
At one point, DJ walks out of the session but comes back and a real connection forms when Doc shares his own experience with survivor's guilt (and that is highly unprofessional of him, but arguably appropriate under these circumstances). Another problem, however, is that Doc tells DJ up front that he is in no hurry and that the session will take as long as it needs to for him to help the tormented young man, but then he doesn't abide by that. He does let the time run on past an hour, even with DJ's guard (Darrious Varner) anxiously waiting to take him back to his room, still Doc does make plans to return in two days to continue their work and promises he can see the soldier three or four times a week after that. He looks at his watch regularly throughout, but DJ calls him on it, and there is a light moment involving habits and Doc's comment on nose-picking gets a rare smile from the patient.
DJ made some choices after he got the medal that don't line up with his Army experience, but now that he was a certified "hero," perhaps he felt he should act like one and continue to support and even help grow the Army by becoming a recruiter. The two men didn't delve deeply into those choices here and Doc said they could examine them and other issues next time. He says that he can't cure DJ, but DJ can cure himself and that he, the doctor, will show him how to do it. Even DJ is suspicious of that claim.
Director Sean Belt has allowed his actors to fully, and sometimes frighteningly, engage with each other. DJ is a time bomb, and Pierre starts slowly and builds to a climax that comes very close to violence. Kopp is "steady as she goes" for the most part, but he subtly conveys his fear when DJ becomes aggressive. The two men literally stand toe-to-toe during a couple of their exchanges and then the sparks really fly. But, for those of us old enough to remember at least some of the Vietnam War, the repercussions of which we are still feeling today, this all seems like ground too frequently and often more adroitly trod, especially in plays such as John DiFusco's"Tracers" or Bruce Norris's "Purple Heart," as just a couple of examples. The films "Taxi Driver," "The Deer-Hunter," "Platoon," "Born on the Fourth of July," and many others can, through their more graphic medium, depict the horrors of Vietnam viscerally. "Medal of Honor Rag" is short and absorbing in its fashion, but, in the end, it is a product of its era and doesn't bring anything new to the ongoing discussion about those spoiled by war.