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Originally published December 9, 2012 at 5:31 AM | Page modified December 11, 2012 at 5:42 PM

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Tom Skerritt: ‘You see how it feels to just unravel’

Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur chats with Tom Skerritt, founder of the Red Badge Project, a program that aims to help soldiers work out the war through writing.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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It was pouring buckets. There would be a long drive to Fort Lewis in a couple of hours. And Tom Skerritt had just mistakenly sprinkled breadccrumbs into his daughter Helen’s oatmeal. (Looked like brown sugar in the bag.)

But it was a good day. A great day. It was Graduation Day for the third session of the actor’s Red Badge Project, in which soldiers returning home try to work out the war through writing.

“It’s always a good day when you see these guys who were so fragile and belligerent get into a bettter side of themselves,” Skerritt said the other day. “We have to diffuse this sense of alienation.”

The Red Badge Program was started last August, after Skerritt spoke with his neighbor, West Point graduate and former Army captain Evan Bailey, about what soldiers needed to heal.

Skerritt had been haunted by a dinner four years before, when he met some soldiers just back from Iraq.

“Most of them were physically wrecked,” he said. “They couldn’t even say ‘Hello,’ and that was haunting. Even in a crowd, they looked alone.”

He wondered if the writing workshops he had been conducting at The Film School he founded might help. Eighty-five percent of the graduates there said the Seattle-based school had changed their lives, Skerritt said, and given them “the gift of themselves.”

So, with Bailey’s help, Skerritt connected with the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Lewis to launch a month-long story-telling school, during which they work on writing, acting, directing and character development, with photography one day a week.

“I believe it all begins with feeling good about yourself,” Skerritt said. “Where does that start? With an ability to laugh at yourself.”

Each soldier recieves a joke book, and has to tell a joke to the rest of the group. To crack up, and crack open a little.

“You see how it feels to just unravel,” he said. “We are trying to make them understand the value of how they see the world, and how that can be the seed of good story-telling.”

So the soldiers don’t write about combat or explosives or the rigors of war, but comforting things like Christmas, a first date, food or a childhood memory. All help connect them to the person they were before they joined the military.

It’s likely they didn’t know that person very well, said Skerritt, who joined the Air Force right out of high school in Michigan.

Some students aren’t more than 20, and saw the military as a chance to travel, to get away from home and have new experiences.

“Little did you know,” Skerritt said, “you go into a bizarre, unorthodox combat zone. They’re trained to kill. They can’t let down the intensity.

“And we have to get them to put on other new clothes. It’s a complete change of wardrobe.”

So it must be nice to have a familiar face like Skerritt holding up a coat.

“I don’t know that I’m good at drawing anything out,” Skerritt said. “I just tell them to forget about the thinking. Just feel it.”

Skerritt is 79 now, but it’s hard to believe.

For starters, there’s that hair; gray grass that always looks like it’s just been raked, the two sproinks on either side. There’s that face, more rugged than weathered. And there are those eyes, both sage-like and mischevious.

Skerritt is always thinking. Listening, sure. But thinking.

And there is his energy. Not only is he making oatmeal for a five-year-old and stepping over a tea set in the living room, he can’t seem to stop working. There’s his voice on a pain-medicine commercial. There he is in the lead role at the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Don Quixote.”

He had a cameo in last summer’s Seth MacFarlane flick, “Ted,” and starred in the video for Poor Moon’s song, “Holiday,” in which he checks into a decrepit mental hospital for some pill-popping and dancing.

“I’m periodically acting,” he said. “But it’s not on my radar. Seattle is on my radar altogether. Putting together all these creative energies and making them commercially viable.”

To that end, Skerritt is working on a Web series about stroller moms. Gangs of them.

“I guess it’s ‘Sex in the City’ on wheels,” he said. “You know how stroller moms are. They aren’t meant to be gangs, but it just happens. They converge.”

Skerritt and his wife, Julie Tokashiki, joined the stroller ranks five years ago when they adopted Helen, giving way to all things pink. And exhaustion. And joy.

Ask him about being a father again in his seventies and Skerritt leans back in his chair, the gratitude hitting him like a gust of wind.

“Oh, God! Great lady, wonderful child,” he said. “Somebody asked me about regret, any decisions over the years. I don’t have any regrets.”

Yet, he said, “There are things I would have done differently.”

Like?

“Just the stupid failings of man,” he said, and there is that sage again. “We all care about how we affect other people by our actions.”

He pauses, then turns the wheel toward the young men he will see on this great day, and gift with an inscribed copy of “The Red Badge of Courage.”

“All that helps me get to these guys who are trying to get back to themselves,” he said. “We’re giving them the risk of possibility and the audacity of their imagination.”

Nicole & Co. appears Sundays in NW Arts & Life. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or nbrodeur@seattletimes.com.

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