Writing Songs Provides Peace for Some Soldiers

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BELTON, Tex. -- Sgt. First Class Scott McRae was reluctant to attend a songwriting retreat for soldiers. He did not like to talk to strangers about his Army career and he did not see the point of writing songs. He was not artsy; he did not like to share his feelings. He was a career infantryman, a self-described crusty old guy.

But after a friend repeatedly suggested that he go to the retreat, where soldiers were encouraged to express their war and home-front stories through music, Sergeant McRae, 40, agreed. He said that he figured it might do the junior soldiers some good to hear his stories about recovering from a traumatic brain injury and overcoming his struggles with drinking. Besides, with a broken marriage and three combat deployments behind him, he was looking forward to a weekend away.

So on a recent weekend, Sergeant McRae traveled to the retreat, SongwritingWith:Soldiers, held near Fort Hood. It was the brainchild of Darden Smith, a singer-songwriter from Texas who knew from doing workshops with children that music could give people confidence.

After Mr. Smith and Radney Foster wrote "Angel Flight" in 2009, a song about bringing dead service members home, Mr. Smith was approached by LifeQuest Transitions, a nonprofit group that helps wounded soldiers adapt to civilian life, about hosting a retreat for soldiers in Colorado. In 2010 he began working with veterans and soldiers, and it went so well that he started SongwritingWith:Soldiers.

"We're using the process of songwriting to tell their stories," Mr. Smith, 50, said. "This is in service to them."

In October, he held a soldier songwriting retreat in Bell County, home to Fort Hood, one of the country's largest military bases. He was joined by Mr. Foster, 53, and Jay Clementi, 40, singer-songwriters with Billboard hits, and they each worked one on one with the seven soldiers and two veterans who had enrolled. All the soldiers were struggling with living outside a combat zone, and nearly everyone was in therapy.

Sergeant McRae was paired with Mr. Clementi. "I usually don't talk much, and definitely not about my emotions," the sergeant said when Mr. Clementi asked him to talk about himself. Mr. Clementi smiled and they continued working together.

In the next hour, Sergeant McRae opened up about his deployments, his divorce and the challenge of leading men. He said that when he returned from combat, he felt numb and detached from his family. Arguments were frequent, and he started drinking. His wife eventually left him and took their children.

"The war was easy," Sergeant McRae said. "It was the war of words with my wife that was tough."

"What were some of the things she said?" Mr. Clementi asked.

Sergeant McRae paused, set his jaw and said, "To this family, you're a ghost."

Into the song it went.

That weekend Staff Sgt. Eustacio Obregon, who deployed four times to Iraq as a petroleum supply specialist, composed a song with Sergeants McRae and Josh Hartman, 43, about firefights, friends who were killed in battle and repeat deployments.

"This is a way to open up a little more about what we've been through," Sergeant Obregon, 38, said. "This song is something that's mine, this is my life. I can bring this song home and play it for my kids, and they can understand what I've been through."

Karen Vandiver, a psychotherapist who works with veterans and soldiers, helped select those who attended the camp. Most of them have post-traumatic stress disorder.

"Songwriting is very healing, and it needs the same focus as psychotherapy," Ms. Vandiver said. "When you focus on your issue in an intense way, you get insight and often closure."

For some, the camp's pleasure was more prosaic. Since returning from Iraq and Kuwait in June, Sgt. First Class Nikki Shaw, a 30-year-old Army medic, was having trouble sleeping. On the two-night retreat, she slept through the night.

Mr. Foster said that type of progress was reason enough to keep holding the retreats. The singers hope to raise enough money to host four more retreats next year and eight in 2014.

Executives at the Bob Woodruff Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to injured service members, provided financing for the retreat. Colleen McDonough, president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers Foundation, which has financed workshops for children and the elderly, said her organization also believes in the therapeutic nature of music and donated money for the retreat.

The plan is to offer retreats near military installations for soldiers and veterans from all service branches.

"This isn't about guys sitting around and singing songs," said Anne Marie Dougherty, director of the Bob Woodruff Foundation. "This is about suicide prevention and giving them hope and confidence to get on with their life."

By the retreat's end, the musicians and soldiers had written 10 songs and had them professionally recorded. Each soldier was given a copy and received co-author credits. The songs may eventually be used on an album of retreat songs.

Afterward, the soldiers reflected on their experience, using words like "inspiring," "cathartic" and "validating."

"This retreat restored my faith in humanity," said Sergeant McRae, the last to speak, as tears streaked his face.

Kristina Shevory served in the United States Army for eight years.

nation

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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