TAMPA, Fla. (SBG) — Twenty years after the 9/11 terror attacks shook our nation to the core, America is facing new uncertainty. Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, and troops exited our longest war. Now, hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members are trying to find purpose in the war they fought. One Special Forces veteran found solace in storytelling, and his play is helping families cope.
As Afghanistan was being overrun by the Taliban, and desperate citizens pleaded for an escape, even flooding airports and climbing onto taxiing aircraft, Scott Mann was watching.
"My friends who are Afghans are now texting me in the middle of the night, asking 'Every city has fallen. What should I do?'" he told us.
Mann worries for his Afghan friends, and understands the anguish being felt by U.S. troops who fought America's longest war, as well as the families who lost loved ones in combat.
"They've been telling themselves for years that it was worth it," Green Beret Scott Man told us. "And then you see what's happening now, and what do you say?"
As many question the withdrawal, and what it means for the future, Mann is confident in one thing. "Afghanistan, they'll find their way. That is a resilient country," he told us, "I don't think our future with them is over. I think that there are still chapters unwritten with that country and the United States."
It's an unwritten future that has troops, veterans, and military families struggling to adjust, and wondering what America's "forever war" was for. In his search for clarity, Mann directs us to an unexpected place: the stage.
As he faced his own struggle with post-traumatic stress, Mann began storytelling as therapy. He wrote a play to try to help other veterans who may be questioning their own combat experiences, battle injuries, and those invisible wounds of war.
The play, called "Last Out: Elegy of a Green Beret," is based on true stories of men and women Mann served alongside. It follows fictional Green Beret Danny Patton through his overseas deployment, military life, and his joys of building a family, including meeting and marrying his wife and having his son. It spans basic training, settling for Zoom calls on Christmas, even the moment Patton takes his final breath. In between, Mann also focuses on Patton's bond and partnership with an Afghan tribal leader, who offered critical assistance to the U.S. military when they needed it most.
Another unique feature of the play is the cast and crew behind it. Every member is either a veteran or a military family member.
"I figured if we could get a cast of those who had lived it, that would make it way different than the modern movies that you see, and the war books," Mann told us. "This would be a story told that's never really been heard and a voice that's never really been heard either. And that was by the people who lived it."
Mann calls the story a "white knuckle ride."
It's a ride that has resonated deeply with veterans and their loved ones across the country. When "Last Out" toured in front of live audiences, Gold Star families were given special seating. Counselors were on hand to help those who may have been triggered by the play, or were suffering from post-traumatic stress. In all, the play lead to 250 post traumatic stress interventions spanning 16 cities over just one year. It's one of the things that Mann is most proud of.
Another point of pride is the connection he's made with military families all over the U.S.
After one performance, high school student Ryan Gilley was moved to stand up. Choking back tears, he spoke about his father, a lieutenant colonel in the United States Marine Corps, who died in combat in 2018. Gilley told us the play held special meaning for him. Mann, a longtime friend of the Gilley family, rushed off the stage to hug Ryan.
Gilley and Mann recently got together at a very special place in Tampa. There, they reminisced in front of the "wall of honor." The wall is used as a backdrop in the play; it's lined with mementos and photos of fallen soldiers given to Scott Mann by families to help them heal. Prominently displayed is a photo of Gilley's father.
Ryan believes seeing the play is important, not just for military families, but for everyone.
"I think seeing this play and really focusing on not only the veterans, but their families will show other people what certain families go through," Gold Star son Ryan Gilley told us. "It's very important that they need support and they need help."
"Last Out: Elegy of a Green Beret" will be released as a film on Veterans' Day. Proceeds will go toward opening a Performing Arts Center for Veterans to provide a space for healing through storytelling.
You can watch the trailer below.
For more information on Last Out, including how you can donate to help the film, click here.