Patti Jay and four other vets share stories, overcome odds

Milwaukie resident Patti Jay experienced childhood trauma when she was 9 years old; her father was a World War II veteran struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder; and she herself is a military veteran.

Life for her has “been quite a journey, raising three boys by myself and dealing with two [bouts] of cancer. I’ve had a few bumps,” Jay said.

But when she had the opportunity to join with other women vets to share her journey in the form of a play called “Breaking Rank,” opening Feb. 17, she jumped at the chance. “Breaking Rank,” she said, will bring “awareness of different parts within the military culture. It’s about what women experience in the military; it’s about education and awareness.”

The five women veterans wrote all the dialogue in the play, but are portrayed by professional Portland-based actors; it runs through March 5 at Milagro Theatre in Southeast Portland.

Military experience

PHOTO BY DICK TRTEK - From left, Jessica Dart, director of 'Breaking Rank,' consults with writer Patti Jay and actress Cecily Overman.Jay was in the Air National Guard as an aerospace medical technician from 1979 to 1986.

Through working on the play, she learned she is tired of feeling like a victim. This in turn led her to form a faith-based program for survivors of sexual and domestic violence.

“I’m on a new journey — I’m in control now,” Jay said. She also has a Facebook account, NW Women Veterans Connection, to share experiences with other female vets.

Her sister advised her to join the military, Jay said, in order to gain some direction in life, and “because of that choice, now I am surrounded by tremendous women veterans with a lot to share. We are determined to change the military culture.”

She decided to participate in “Breaking Rank,” noting that her story “is a journey of childhood trauma, blended into my military career, peppered with some understanding of my father.”

She considers the play is in part dealing with “things I wish I’d said to my father; that has been the biggest healing.”

‘Breaking Rank’

The play is the result of a partnership between three Portland organizations: Well Arts Institute, the Returning Veterans Project, and Wise Council & Comfort.

Well Arts is an arts-in-healing nonprofit that uses theater, writing and other forms of creative expression to empower people with mental or physical illnesses or who have experienced social stigma.

“Using the Well Arts model, we are giving voice to a population with stories not often heard — five female military veterans who are all different ages,” Jay said.

The other two organizations, Returning Veterans Project and Wise Council & Comfort, offer confidential services to war-zone veterans and others using mental-health professionals and various health-care or personal-care providers.

Starting last September, the five embarked on a 10-week writing program, meeting weekly to share their stories.

Then director Jessica Dart “transformed our stories into a stage production,” Jay said. Dart then cast the play using professional actors.

“Matching actors with the writers allowed us to tell our stories in a different way, [rather] than through a conference or panel,” Jay said.

Insights gained

“Through the whole editing process, rewriting and sharing stories, I’ve had some epiphanies about my military experience and my own life history. This has given me some clarity, knowing that I’m not the only person [this happened to],” Jay said.

“I have a sense of a new community, and I have broadened my pool of women veterans,” she said.

And now, watching the rehearsal process, it is “mind-blowing to hear yourself through another voice. It emphasizes that this is a good thing to do. Another person’s voice gives it validation, and to know that hundreds of people will hear my story has a broader impact,” Jay said.

Cecily Overman was chosen to play Jay in “Breaking Rank,” and Jay is pleased with that choice, saying Overman “really gets me and has a strong voice.”

“I have loved being able to put myself in shoes I’ve never experienced before. This whole process has been a first-hand account of her military career and how that has affected her life, and I’ve loved how she has brought in her relationship with her family,” Overman said.

She added that she has relished the chance to interact with Jay, noting how she uses her body and her hands when she speaks.

“I’m not trying to imitate her, but I want to take her words and translate them through me to get a feel for her essence and her personality,” Overman said.

Positive changes

“We have to put a voice to these stories” many of which deal with sexual harassment in the military, Jay said, noting that people either are not aware of military sexual trauma, or don’t realize how prevalent it is.

MST runs the gamut from “rape to assault, both physical and verbal, and any unwanted contact. People [both men and women] can go to the VA hospital and get therapy, no questions asked,” Jay said.

“We think we’re by ourselves, but we’re not. There are people out in the community to help. The transition piece, from military to civilian life, is difficult. Projects like Well Arts can enrich your life and help you move forward,” she said.

For people in the audience, the play may “strike a chord so they can talk about [what happened to them] and know they are not the only one,” Jay said.

She added, “We need better women’s services within the VA. Speaking up must be applauded within the military framework. ‘Breaking Rank’ can bring strength to those of us who did not have a voice.”

Fast facts

What: Well Arts presents “Breaking Rank,” in partnership with Returning Veterans Project and Wise Counsel & Comfort, facilitated and directed by Jessica Dart.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Sundays, Feb. 17-March 5, and 2 p.m. Saturdays

Where: Milagro Theatre, 525 S.E. Stark St., Portland

Cost: General $15; students and seniors, $10. To buy tickets, visit, click on Performance and scroll down to Tickets Available Here.

Who: The play is written by female veterans Jeanne Clayton, a U.S. Navy vet; Jojo Jackson, who was in both the U.S. Air Force and Army; Patti Jay, who was a staff sergeant in the Air National Guard; Layna Lewis, a U.S. Army veteran; and Sandy Scott, who was in the U.S. Air Force and the Air National Guard.

More: Well Arts,; Returning Veterans Project,; Wise Council & Comfort,

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