Retired Green Beret-turned-playwright Scott Mann knows what it’s like to struggle with returning home from combat and leaving the military. He’s learned how to overcome that struggle by sharing his story.
His play, “Last Out: Elegy of a Green Beret,” brought the realities of life in the military to audiences across the country in its 2019 tour. Now, it’s in production as a filming of the stage performance with a planned release for streaming later this year.
Mann, now 52, said he knew he wanted to join Special Forces when he was 14. Comparing his life to a play, he says the first act was spent preparing to earn his green beret, focusing on that singular goal.
In the second act of his life, Mann wore his beret with pride, serving 18 of his 23 years in the Army in Special Forces. After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, he repeatedly deployed to the Middle East.
“I found myself either in Afghanistan or getting ready to go back,” Mann told Military Times. His work in Special Forces gave him purpose and meaning, but in 2013 at the rank of lieutenant colonel, he decided it was time to step away.
On the surface, his life seemed fine. He took a civilian job as a contractor, and his family was doing well. But something was missing — he didn’t feel the same sense of purpose he had in the military.
“I’m sitting there looking in the mirror, 40-some years old, wondering ‘Is this it?’” said Mann. “All the things I wanted to as a 14-year-old kid, I’ve done them. Now what? What’s act three?”
The survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress Mann says he had pushed down for years rose to the surface and began to overflow. In a TED Talk in 2019 he shared the story of the moment he nearly took his own life, standing in a closet in his home with a loaded handgun.
“Your darkest struggle can be your greatest gift to those you lead…if you are willing to pay the price,” Mann said in his TED Talk — a fitting description of his journey from Green Beret to writer and actor.
With the help of civilian mentors, Mann overcame his struggles and found a new purpose: using storytelling to help others.
“Last Out” was born from a five-minute play Mann had written for an acting course on one-person shows. Two years of writing later, that monologue became a compilation of the stories Mann, his fellow Green Berets, their fallen comrades, and family members had experienced in more than two decades of war.
His goal was to validate the feelings and frustrations of veterans, let Gold Star families know they’re not forgotten, and give civilians a real understanding of the realities of a world they’ve become desensitized to. As the play becomes a film, he retains the same mission.
“We need to understand the cost of modern war from the voice of the people who lived it,” Mann said. “There’s no end in sight to threats and war, but if we’re going to continue to send our men and women to fight, then we need to understand what we’re asking of them.”
As the four-person cast (all veterans or military family members) performed the show more than 50 times in 16 cities during 2019, the reception was tremendous.
In talkbacks with the audience after performances, the cast heard from veterans, Gold Star families, children of veterans, and civilians with no military experience, all of whom felt the show had given them new understandings and emotions. The show even traveled with its own counsellors to treat actors and audience members when scenes from the play triggered post-traumatic stress. In every city, Mann was touched by how the show was supported by local hosts and volunteers.
Then COVID-19 hit, and the show was put on hold. Mann watched as unemployment related to the virus decimated the touring company he was working with. Hungry to keep sharing the story of “Last Out,” he put on a remote performance of scenes from his play, “The Things They Carried,” and World War II monologues. Again, the reception was incredible, and Mann saw the opportunity for “Last Out” to reach new audiences online.
Inspired by how well Disney recorded a stage performance of “Hamilton” during the pandemic, Mann decided to record “Last Out” for release on a major streaming platform. With new costumes and props, the stage performance was prepared for film.
“The play itself was incredible, but the magic of film has allowed us to take it beyond the next level. With live theatre, you really don’t have time to do the things we were able to do in the film,” said Alliy Vetzel, deputy director of The Heroes Journey and tour manager for “Last Out.”
Mann founded The Heroes Journey in 2015 as a non-profit to help veterans, first responders, and their families share their voices through storytelling. The organization’s ultimate goal is to open a veterans performing arts center in Florida.
Vetzel, the wife of an Army infantryman injured by an IED in Iraq, spoke to the non-profit’s success. “When [my husband] first saw the play, he said, ‘I’ve never felt like someone truly understood what I was going through until now.’ The positive changes to his life since working with Scott are nothing short of amazing,” she said.
“Last Out: Elegy of a Green Beret” is scheduled for a limited release as a filmed performance on Memorial Day, May 31, to honor Gold Star families and a full release on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
The show’s trailer can be watched on YouTube.
“I want to do the same thing we did with the play but on a much larger scale,” said Mann. “I want to inform the American people on the cost of war, I want to validate the journey of those who fought it and lived it, I want to help heal the invisible wounds of combat, and I want to, across the country, connect Americans around this hard topic of war.”
Harm Venhuizen is an editorial intern at Military Times. He is studying political science and philosophy at Calvin University, where he's also in the Army ROTC program.