Years have passed since Jacques Pugh’s time in Bosnia and later in Iraq, where he served in the 81st Infantry Brigade. But the pain lingers; you can see it his eyes, knowing that comrades in arms, dedicated soldiers—some of them friends—were raped at the violent hands of their superiors.
Last week, at a dimly lit Ballard coffee house strewn with Adirondack chairs, Pugh recounted the searing memories that culminated in his 90-minute play, which dramatically unearths the psychological toll of military sexual assault. It’s called Submerged/The Play, and opened last weekend at Freehold Theatre. Our conversation unfolded just a week after the release of a much-anticipated Pentagon study that showed a 50 percent increase last year in reports of rapes and sexual assault.
“It was 2002. We were winding down in Bosnia when I learned that a sergeant in the battalion had raped several of his soldiers,” Pugh begins. “The guy was married, with a family. He was an ordained Baptist minister. He was 6´5˝, 240 pounds, chiseled. He ordered them down to do pushups, and then he raped them.”
Pugh is an intense man, 50 years old, tall and thin as a reed. He grew up in the East, but has called Seattle home since the 1980s, when his family moved here. A public-affairs officer for much of his quarter-century in the Army, Pugh spent a number of years before entering the service working as a TV journalist in Little Rock, Pittsburgh, and Indianapolis.
In 2011, three years after bidding the Army farewell, Pugh enrolled at the Art Institute of Seattle (he graduated last December) with the goal of becoming an independent film producer. He recalls being asked by an admissions officer what kind of film he wanted to make. Pugh, consumed then—as he is now—with anger that one could fall prey to sexual assault by those he or she trusted, relayed some of his experiences in the armed forces. He said his film would center on the price of betrayal, the savage cost of sexual wrongdoing.
Submerged is a composite of real situations and people Pugh encountered in the military. Veteran Seattle stage director and actor Robert Bertocchini adapted the work for the stage after being cast in Pugh’s original short film as the psychotherapist who guides the protagonist Jane Bishop (played by actress Melissa Topscher) through her post-rape ordeal and struggle to live a normal life. Pugh takes the role of the rapist, a fictionalized Sgt. Major Dupree, who turns her life into a living hell.
“I love the Army and I love my nation,” Pugh says quietly. “I gave a lot to the Army. I didn’t have to serve.” He pauses. And then, “All of this sullies the Army, but it is important to know that the vast majority serving, 95 percent, are good, honorable people. But there is something in the culture of the military that allows this to happen. Too many good soldiers, men and women, have had their lives destroyed. This is ugly. It has to stop.”
Pugh proceeds to rifle through his tattered wallet. At last he finds it: a small piece of plastic that some soldiers attach to their dogtags. It contains a list of the seven Army values: Loyalty, Duty, Selfless Service, Respect, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage.
“I will keep this with me,” says Pugh, “until I die.”
Submerged plays at 7:30 p.m. Fri., May 16–Sat., May 17 and 1:30 p.m. Sun., May 18 at Freehold Theatre, 2222 Second Ave., Suite 200, 800-838-3006, brownpapertickets.com. $20.