Where it all began: 5,000 miles from Texas
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.” The song about bringing home soldiers killed in the line of duty, which I wrote with my longtime friend Radney Foster, changed my life after it was released in 2009.
Learning to bridge a culture divide
Until my conversation with Lt. Col. Cale in Germany, I’d never had any association with the U.S. military. No family or friends had served, and I really felt the “us-and-them” cultural remove that I think many civilians feel. But after the experience writing “Angel Flight” – and hearing dozens of stories from people who had been moved by the song – I knew I wanted to find some way to start giving back to the people who serve our country.
When CW Conner of LifeQuest Transitions called me in 2010 after watching Radney’s video for “Angel Flight,” the time was right. His nonprofit organization, based in Colorado Springs, Colorado, helps wounded soldiers transition from combat zones to civilian life. We organized an initial three-day songwriting weekend with a handful of veterans, and the tremendous power of writing songs with these amazing men and women swept me away.
The soldiers – men and women from all four branches of the U.S. military – had stories to tell, and often no outlet to express them. Their experiences in war zones were so far beyond what civilians could imagine that they sometimes couldn’t communicate what they were feeling – what it’s like to have been ambushed in Ramadi, to go on patrol in Baghdad, to witness, and survive, so much destruction. With a guitar in hand and open minds and ears, we put words and music to some of what they’d been through.
The experience – for the soldiers, for their families, for me – was phenomenal. But the psychological drain was staggering. To truly be able to write, a songwriter has to be open to the emotion of the moment – and those days were filled with trauma, grief and turbulence. I knew I needed help in navigating these emotional stories, and for the next songwriting retreat six months later, I brought on board Radney and Jay Clementi, another fellow songwriter. In July 2011 the three of us spent a three-day weekend in Colorado with 10 soldiers and their families, immersed in building bonds, listening and setting their experiences to music.
The result was beyond anything I could have expected. You could actually see the transformation in some soldiers. Expressions lightened, laughter flowed, tears burst forth more than once. And the songs themselves were good in their own right. Six of them, in fact, were subsequently recorded in Nashville, and released on iTunes as “Faces of Freedom” – with the soldiers all as co-writers.
Knowing that you’re directly helping somebody by the simple act of writing a song has been a powerful motivator to continue the songwriting collaborations. From this experience I’ve gone on to create SongwritingWith:Soldiers, which brings together soldiers and songwriters in a retreat setting for three days of collaborative work, storytelling and emotional healing.