After his deployment to Iraq in 2003, openly gay Marine Reservist Jeff Key returned to the States with a life-threatening intestinal problem and a growing concern about the Bush administration’s handling of the war effort.
During his two-month deployment, Key held onto his sanity by keeping a journal — protected in the cargo pocket of his uniform — which became the basis of his one-man show, “The Eyes of Babylon,” on stage March 15-April 3 at Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St., Bristol.
An Alabama native who holds a bachelor’s degree in theater from the University of Alabama, Key joined the Marine Corps as a reservist in 2000, at age 34. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, his unit was activated and eventually deployed to eastern Iraq in March 2003 — at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“With the exception of excerpts of three letters — one to my friends back in L.A. who are also artists, one to the family of a Marine in my unit who died and a letter to the C.O. to explain why I was leaving the Marine Corps — the play in its totality comes from my journals,” Key said. “When I’m up on stage, the words I am speaking are straight out of my journal.”
After his surgery, Key’s disquiet about what he’d observed in Iraq and his growing conviction that the coalition’s tactics were wrong led him to decide to leave the military. He said his journal entries were instrumental in helping him sort through all the internal baggage he brought back with him.
“When I got back from Iraq and people would ask me about what it was like for me over there, I would read to them from my journals,” he said. “Usually the feedback was I should do something with them, like publish them. I came back in 2003 and I went through a period of depression, trying to figure out how to speak about the Bush administration’s foreign policy and what it was like for me to serve under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ I just continued to do readings for my friends.”
In his show, Key frankly discusses the frustration and revelations he experiences during the U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq, all the while serving openly under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“‘Eyes of Babylon’ to me is the story of my spiritual journey, my crisis of conscience and what ultimately led me to hold on to my patriotic and spiritual values set against the backdrop of this particular war and the fact that I was serving as an out gay man,” Key said. “All my buddies in the Marine Corps are straight. They all knew, from the time they came out to me as straight and I came out to them as gay. I was not about to fucking listen to them share their deepest, darkest secrets and the details of their relationships with their wives or girlfriends and then manufacture a safe life to present to them as me. That level of extremely profound commitment between Marines is based on honesty and selflessness and I thought that would be a selfish thing to do. So I was risking their being able to say, ‘This guy is gay and he has to go,’ because I was still serving under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.’ But I never had a negative coming-out experience in the Marine Corps. I came out to some conservative guys who had never had a gay friend.
“Leading up to the repeal of DADT, the commandant made some comments about the culture of the Marine Corps. Unfortunately he was making them in support of keeping DADT. But there was a lot of truth in what he was saying. The culture of the Marine Corps is hyper-masculine. I think that when I came out to my buddies, they looked at me and I sort of fit the idea of what a Marine should be. I was willing to give my life for the country and for them. I was willing to fight and die for what I believed in.”
Even with the support and acceptance of his fellow Marines, who didn’t say anything about his orientation to their superiors, Key received an honorable discharge under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” after he went on CNN as Paula Zahn’s guest on 2004, speaking out in opposition to the occupation of Iraq and the ban on openly gay servicemembers.
Key now performs “Eyes of Babylon” nationally and internationally, and he speaks at high schools, businesses, universities, peace groups and churches on effective nonviolent conflict resolution. Key was also the subject of a Showtime documentary, “Semper Fi: One Marine’s Journey,” that first aired in June 2007.
Key said the servicemembers he’s encountered during his travels have been supportive of his work.
“Parts of the ‘Eyes of Babylon’ shed some light on the experience from the inside,” he said. “I’ve heard from a lot of straight servicemen and veterans who have been very supportive based on the fact that I was a Marine who loves the Marine Corps and loves the United States of America.”
When asked about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” Key believes it was and is still being used for political reasons, as opposed to any concerns about how servicemembers will get along without it.
“My grandfather’s generation grew up down South as coalmining stock from as far back as you can trace it,” he said. “From its inception, this country as part of our history, people lived in abject poverty and worked themselves to death while the American wealthy elite lived like royalty. There was a point where poor and working-class people said, ‘That won’t work and the only way we can stand up against that is to work together.’ I know there are some evil geniuses out there that have figured out a way to craft this and other issues to keep poor people voting against their best interest.”
Key believes most Americans aren’t getting the full picture of everything that has happened in Iraq.
“I haven’t had a TV since I got back,” he said. “I just became acutely aware. I’m still wildly patriotic and I believe that Americans are good people. But I believe some horrific things have been done in our name. I was raised by a history teacher and we have a very one-sided view of our history. In modern America, there are a lot of people that believe that their identity is wrapped up in their patriotism, and that means we have to pretend that we have this very innocent history. For me, the opposite is true. I love my country so much, I think we need to look at the ways that we fucked up to make sure that we’re not repeating mistakes. I’m not some doomsday artist, but we’ve been the top dog for a while now and every country that’s been the most powerful country on earth has fallen away. We’re not the first country to hold that position.
“So a lot of my expression through my art is connected to my desire to keep America safe and allow us the opportunity to move forward. Denying our history is a recipe for destruction. We have to be honest about the fact that there were 10 million people living on this continent when Europeans first came here. We have to be honest about the fact that the people that drafted the Constitution believed in owning other humans. I don’t believe in deifying our founders. I believe they did incredible, wonderful things for us by putting into place a system whereby we can go run ourselves and continually be tough on ourselves. When I see the Tea Party activists saying, ‘We want to go back’ — the people that they deify did not allow women to vote. If you didn’t own property or have an education, you couldn’t vote. That’s not the America that I want. That’s not the America I want to live in. It’s not the America I’m still willing to give my life to defend.”
It can’t be easy to relive your own mental turmoil from a war four nights a week for weeks at a time. But Key said he can’t yet envision someone else telling his story on the stage.
“By this point, certainly, we’ve been approached about having other productions do the script,” he said. “I think it would make sense. I want to do the New York run. I haven’t made any decisions about when I’ll stop doing it. I’m writing another play that I will perform and I’ve written another play that’s based on my teenage friendship, but I would not perform that. The play was the thing that got me past being frozen with my depression and my frustration with what was going on in the country and that I had this message that I wanted to share so badly. It only made sense for me to tell the story.”
The Bristol Riverside Theatre presents “The Eyes of Babylon” March 15-April 3 at 120 Radcliffe St. For more information on Jeff Key, his works or tickets to his show, visit www.theeyesofbabylon.com or call 215-785-0100.