Through my work with The Be An Artist Program, I was asked by my friend Helen Patton in May 2008 to play at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, near Ramstein Air Base in Germany. American soldiers wounded in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan usually are transported to Landstuhl, the largest American hospital outside the United States.
Playing in a hospital cafeteria for soldiers who’d returned from Iraq only days before wasn’t the easiest gig I’ve ever had. But it was there, as I was packing my guitars, that I met Lt. Col. Fred Cale of the U.S. Marines Corps. He’d had multiple tours in Iraq and was, surprisingly, a guitar aficionado. Lt. Col. Cale opened my eyes to a world in which I had no experience, and he showed me that a liberal songwriter from Austin, Texas, had more in common with a military officer than I’d imagined.
We talked about high-end guitars, songwriting and the way music helps people open up. And he gave me the idea that songwriting might be able to help soldiers tell their untellable stories, and ease their transition back to civilian life after combat tours.
Back in Austin, I soon found myself spending time with members of the Texas Army National Guard, where I met Maj. Jim Nugent. He was the one who truly gave me insight into the concept of “duty,” and he was instrumental in nurturing the subsequent idea for “Angel Flight,” about bringing home soldiers killed in the line of duty, which I wrote with my longtime friend Radney Foster.
The song changed my life, opening doors to what would eventually become SongwritingWith:Soldiers. In 2010, Lifequest Transitions, in Colorado Springs, CO, asked me to come and write songs with veterans who were struggling to move from military to civilian life. I worked with the participants as they shared their grueling stories about combat. The emotional intensity of co-writing one song after another almost overwhelmed me at times. Later, I realized that to do this right would require more songwriters, longer stretches of time, and a more tranquil setting.
In October 2012, it all came together. With the help of a longtime friend, Mary Judd, who knew how to bring programs to life, we held our first SongwritingWith:Soldiers retreat in rural Belton, Texas, not far from Fort Hood. Radney and Jay Clementi joined the team, and the three of us worked with ten soldiers over the next three days. Many of the soldiers were struggling to tell their untellable stories for the first time–what it’s like to be ambushed in Ramadi, to go on patrol in Baghdad, to witness friends killed before your eyes, and to survive so much destruction. With guitars in hand and open minds and ears, we helped put words and music to some of what they’d been through.
The result was beyond anything I could have expected. By the time the songs were complete, you could actually see the transformation in the soldiers. “It felt cathartic,” said one, “to speak openly to someone who would not judge.”
It all began as a simple conversation between a civilian and a marine at a military hospital, and the recognition of how connected we all are, how we actually have so much in common.