News & Politics

Giving Vets a Voice

A Jesuit priest’s two passions—theater and the disabled—have led to his next act: helping wounded soldiers.

Photograph by Jay Westcott.

Even though Rick Curry was born with one arm, he never felt disabled. He grew up in a Philadelphia suburb tying his own shoes and playing baseball. 

But since he’s been an adult, helping the disabled has become his mission. For more than three decades, the 66-year-old—ordained as a Jesuit priest in September—has run the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped in New York City and Belfast, Maine. For six years, his Writers Program for Wounded Warriors has hosted soldiers on a ten-day retreat in Maine at which they write their story in a dramatic monologue—a process Curry believes helps rebuild confidence. 

Now Curry—who has guest-starred on the TV show Monk and counts among his friends the queen of Spain and actor James Gandolfini—is launching a veterans’ academy at Georgetown University. The program, which aims to help vets readjust to civilian life, includes classes in writing, current affairs, and theater as well as physical, mental, and spiritual support. 

You said you never felt “disabled” as a child. How did you start to work with that community?

Either I was naïve or I missed the prejudice. It wasn’t until I was studying theater at NYU, when a receptionist wouldn’t let me into a TV-commercial audition. I introduced myself, and she burst out laughing and started pointing to my arm. She thought I was a joke sent by her boyfriend. All of a sudden I thought, “Where are disabled people in commercials? We eat Big Macs. We shampoo our hair.” That’s when I started an acting class for people with disabilities.

How did you start working with veterans?

Six years ago, I was invited to a reception where military amputees were learning to run on their new prosthetic legs. At one point, a kid grabbed my hand. He said, “I look at my wife, I don’t recognize her. I look at my kids, I can’t talk to them. I’m lost.” My heart broke. 

How do you know if you’re having an impact?

Three of our vets who were never thinking about college are now in college. Before our program, no one had told them they were bright or gifted. One kid loved to dance, but he had hurt his foot in Iraq. When he started to get use of his foot back, we got him dancing onstage. 

What is your goal?

You have to embrace your disability to love yourself. Only then can you love others. I say to people, “Get over your anger. It’s okay to be this way. And not only is it okay—it’s how I am.”

This article first appeared in the November 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.