LONG BEACH -- Toxey Morris joined the navy after medical school. The ship he was stationed on -- the USS Tripoli -- spent time off of Vietnam near the ship where Philip McIlwain was stationed. McIlwain joined the Navy after he got a draft notice, went to enlist in the Air Force but found the office closed for lunch. The Navy recruitment office was next door.
RB Hill joined the Army after searching for another job. Karen Glendenning, lacking money for medical school, joined a Navy medical unit.
Sheila Varnado was working in the same university where she had gotten a masters in library science when an Army recruiter lured her into the service. Fred Varnado joined ROTC in college and was commissioned as an officer after graduating.
Andrew Caldwell joined the Marine Corps in 2008, wanting to add discipline to his life.
So began the Telling Project, a national performing arts non-profit that aims to increase the public's understanding of military veterans by having veterans tell their own stories on stage. All seven who participated on Saturday in Long Beach are from South Mississippi.
"There's a sense that so few civilians have served, they don't really understand that experience," said Douglas Bristol, a University of Southern Mississippi associate professor of history and fellow of the Dale Center for the Study of War and Society. "What better way to explain it than to have veterans tell their own stories?"
From enlisting, the seven moved on to their training. For Sheila Varnadao, who had joined as an officer, it meant simply learning about the Army. Caldwell talked about the notoriously difficult Marine Corps basic training.
Hill called jump school "absolutely horrendous." He needed five jumps to qualify. He broke his leg on the fourth jump. But not wanting to start over, he was determined to complete a fifth.
"We double timed everywhere and I was double timing like a lame duck," he said. He completed a perfect fifth jump, sat down, and called for a medic.
Glendenning talked about the camaraderie created among the recruits, who were to a certain extent pitted against their officer trainers.
"I don't think there's any civilian equivalent," she said.
Morris was stationed on the USS Tripoli as a surgeon.
"I thought, since I was born in 1938, the whole world was at war all the time," he said. "I was almost right."
After WWII, there was Korea, then Vietnam.
He talked about the fighting there and getting shot at and the injuries he had to treat as a surgeon.
He was in Vietnam at the beginning of the Tet Offensive, then returned home.
"When I got back I was through," he said. "I'd picked up enough bodies, spilled enough book, kicked enough machinery over the side."
It wasn't all bad though. McIlwain talked about the pain of seeing body bags. But also about the blue water of the Pacific and a port in the Philippines the sailors always enjoyed and the places he'd seen.
"We talk about war and how bad it is," he said. "But not all military experiences are bad."
Sheila Varnado said she had to learn confidence. She was an officer commanding soldiers with far more military experience than her.
"I discovered I had to grow into it," she said. "I had to believe I was a lieutenant."
Instead of taking a senior-level assignment she opted to try her hand in several departments so she could learn about the Army. That's what she was doing when she met Fred Varnado, at the time a captain.
They eventually married. Both were promoted several times.
And then Sept. 11, 2001, happened.
Sheila Varnado, working in a personnel office, went to Kuwait. She was responsible for knowing where troops were and getting people to the correct place. And for notifying families.
"Casualties, casualties, casualty notifications," she said. "It was non-stop."
She retired in 2004, after 27 years in the Army. Another three years and she would have been eligible for a full pension. But, "I was worn out," she said.
Glendenning deployed with a medical unit in 2005, working in a hospital with what she described as a "fantastic group."
Caldwell enlisted in the Marines, in the infantry, in 2008.
His first deployment saw his unit trying to re-take a Taliban strong hold.
"It got crazy," he said. "Bullets started firing every which way. Explosions everywhere. Even though I joined the infantry I never thought I'd have to do or see anything like that."
The first casualty of his unit, he said, was eye-opening. He deployed one more time, in 2011, before leaving the military.
All seven performers are now living civilian lives.
Fred Varnado runs a program at USM for first-generation college students intending to go to graduate school. Caldwell works for a private military contractor. Glendenning is studying psychology.
Some are retired.
But all said they appreciated their time in the military.
"There's nothing like the military experience," McIlwain said. "Those three years helped mold me largely into who I am today."