Amazing article about how songwriting is helping vets recover from PTSD with lots of pics. Hit link to see pics.
Fight Songs: How Songwriting Is Saving War Vets' Lives
November 29 2012, 8:19 AM ET
by David Peisner
All over the country, soldiers who are suffering from the physical and emotional ravages of war are learning to deal with their pain by writing songs and playing music. Even more surprising: It's working.
Sgt. Josh Hartman is in the backseat of his Humvee as it hurtles down Route Predators in Baghdad. Route Predators is the military's name for what is officially known as Highway 5, a three-mile stretch of road in the eastern part of the city lined with dilapidated cinder-block buildings and littered with ungainly piles of scrap metal, used tires, and other hiding spots for improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. A trip down Route Predators is an unbelievably tense, white-knuckle ride: It's technically a "black road," which means it's too dangerous for military vehicles to traverse, but it's rainy season and the only other path available is a big field that's currently so muddy it's impassable.
Hartman sees the flash first, a split-second before he hears and feels the skull-rattling boom. There's no time to react. The pressure on his head is almost unbearable as air blasts out from the vehicle, then quickly whooshes back, filling the inside with dust, sand, smoke and dirt. Hartman suddenly feels a terrifying crash as the Humvee lands 15 feet to the left of where it had previously been. The air in front of his face is nearly black from all the debris. He hears voices call out, "Who's hurt? Who's hurt?" Listening to his own shallow breathing, he wonders if he is.
Sgt. Hartman's eyes are closed and his left hand is trembling. With his right hand, he massages the bridge of his nose underneath his wire-frame glasses. He's not in Baghdad anymore. It's October 2012, more than five years since his Humvee was hit on Route Predators with one of the four IED blasts he endured during his two tours of duty in Iraq. Those blasts are largely responsible for his post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. Right now, Hartman is sitting around a dinner table at the wood-paneled lodge of a secluded retreat center in Belton, Texas, with a pair of fellow soldiers, Staff Sgt. EJ Obregon and Sgt. First Class Scott McRae, and two songwriters, Darden Smith and Radney Foster, who have guitars resting on their laps. Hartman has been recounting his memory of the IED attack in detail so vivid that, for a moment, it's as if he was back in that darkened, dust-choked Humvee. He eventually looks down and notices his left hand.
"I'm starting to shake just from thinking about it," he says, taking a deep breath. "It really is one of those things you can't describe unless you've been there."
Smith, a tall, lanky 50-year-old Texan who has released 12 albums of sharply observed country and folk-rock since the mid-1980s, and Foster, a silver-haired 53-year-old country traditionalist who has penned hits for himself ("Just Call Me Lonesome") and others (Keith Urban's "I'm In," the Dixie Chicks' "Godspeed [Sweet Dreams]"), are working with Hartman, Obregon, and McRae on a song about their experiences in the military. It's part of a weekend-long retreat run by Smith and his organization, Songwriting With: Soldiers, which gives military men and women suffering from PTSD the opportunity to craft music from their pain.
The songwriting session wasn't scheduled to start until tomorrow morning, but just a few hours after everyone made their way down the long, winding wooded driveway to the lodge, an hour north of Austin, an impromptu jam session sparked up over cold beers. The song they've been working on is called "The Soldier Game," and the group had been struggling to come up with a line about getting hit with an IED when Hartman launched into his fraught remembrance. Now he's finished and the room is quiet. A few moments later, Smith sits up a little in his chair and strums an insistent pattern on his guitar.
"The IED, it hit us / while we were on patrol," he sings. "The dust, the black, the hell broke loose / It shook me to my soul."
"That's it," Hartman says nodding his head.
Less than an hour later, the song is finished. It's the first of ten compositions that will be written this weekend.
As Obregon puts it the following day, "To take those things we were talking about and all of a sudden, it's music, that was one of the coolest things I've ever seen in my life. That's the best therapy I've had since I've been home."
For a long time, post-traumatic stress disorder was not something soldiers admitted to and certainly not something they talked about. PTSD, which in previous eras was called "shell shock," "soldier's heart," and "combat fatigue," can manifest itself with a broad range of symptoms, including flashbacks, nightmares, insomnia, memory loss, severe depression, anxiety, and sudden angry outbursts. Obregon, a friendly 38 year old with a broad torso and dark hair who joined the army at 19, figures he's been suffering from PTSD for the better part of ten years. He first saw action in Bosnia in 1997, and since then has had four deployments in Iraq plus one in Korea.
"I came in the army when you didn't go to sick call," he told me, while we sat on a picnic bench outside the lodge one afternoon. "You never admitted you needed help. You just dealt with it and moved on. The old adage was, 'The thinner your medical records, the better soldier you were.' Because you toughed it out. So for ten years, that's all I've been doing."
But after returning home from his last deployment to Iraq in 2011, he hit a breaking point. He was angry all the time and drinking heavily.
"Leaving the house was a chore," he says. "I wasn't able to get through my daughter's soccer games without rushing home to have a drink and be left alone. I would break down and have these anxiety attacks. I'd get physically ill. So I just quit leaving the house. I was closing down inside." One night, he had what he describes as a "bad blowup."
"I don't remember what happened,” says Obregon. “I don't know how the situation escalated, but it got to the point where it was either get help or lose my family."
When soldiers return home from war, the military requires them to undergo a series of health assessments and reassessments, and for the first time, Obregon resolved to truthfully answer the questions about his mental health. He was diagnosed with PTSD, and since then, the combination of therapy and prescribed medications has improved his condition considerably. He also preaches to the soldiers he commands about PTSD, and says he has begun to see a change in the military's attitude toward it.
"This generation of soldiers and the senior leadership has started to roll over,” he says, “so these guys know what we're dealing with.”
Statistics on PTSD within the military are generally unreliable because they are based largely on self-reporting, but estimates are that anywhere from 5 percent to 35 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from it. Even at the low end, that's pretty disturbing when you consider that more than two million service members have been deployed to combat zones since 2001. Additionally, as of late 2011, more than 115,000 soldiers have suffered a traumatic brain injury, or TBI, which can cause serious physical, cognitive, social, and emotional problems.
The human toll of this is beyond disturbing. At least 2,600 service members have taken their own lives since 2001. To its credit, the military has improved its screening and treatment of both PTSD and TBI, but the suicide rate among service members remains shockingly high — depending on whose stats you believe, anywhere from 60-140 percent higher than the civilian rate. This year, the rate is on pace to be the worst in history: If the current trend line holds, more soldiers and Marines will die in 2012 by their own hand than in combat. The statistics for veterans are even more sobering: According to one study, a military veteran takes his own life in this country once every 80 minutes.
Over the past few years, music-therapy programs and songwriting workshops have started up around the country as a way for returning soldiers to share their experiences, process them, and maybe even find a measure of solace. These programs are hardly some magical cure-all, but their effectiveness is not imaginary. Rebecca Vaudreuil, a neurologic music therapist who runs a program for both veterans and active-duty service members out of the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, says music is particularly useful in treating PTSD and TBI.
"A lot times people can sing about something they can't talk about," she says. "If it's going to be in a song, people can put into words things they wouldn't necessarily just say to someone. These men and women don't want to be stigmatized for stuff they've been through. A lot of them want to re-deploy and they feel like if they're telling their clinical psychologist what they're experiencing, they're going to be put into this box of 'not fit for duty.'"
On a neurological level, she continues, "Music helps with neuroplasticity. So if there are damaged areas of the brain, music is more able to reroute neural pathways, as opposed to regular speech alone."
What this means in practice is that soldiers struggling to remember common facts of life — how to make a bowl of pasta, their own phone number, their friends' names — can improve their memory using music. Soldiers who are prone to irrational fits of rage can learn to take time to process their emotions instead of simply reacting. Karen Vandiver, a psychotherapist in the Austin area who was part of the support staff at Smith's Songwriting With: Soldiers retreat, says that the emotional and psychological benefits of music are the equivalent of "finding your voice."
"It has the capacity to do what therapy does," she says. "People can gain insight, they can get healing and closure. Music is a way to capture the beauty that comes from the horror, and then carry it with you like a tune in your head."
Songwriting With: Soldiers has its roots in one of the worst gigs Darden Smith ever played. A bespectacled, liberal-leaning Austin native, Smith was — through a series of unlikely events — playing a lunchtime show at Landstuhl Air Base in Germany for soldiers just back from Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007.
"I was playing this concert for them and they weren't paying attention," he recalls. "It was terrible, actually. It was a waste of everybody's time. I was packing my guitar up at the end of the concert, thinking, 'I have nothing in common with these people and they have nothing in common with me,' when this Marine came up to me and we started talking about my guitar."
As it turned out, the two had lots in common — friends, guitars, musical taste. The conversation led to Smith meeting up with the Texas National Guard when he returned home, which in turn led to Smith and Foster writing the song, "Angel Flight," which Foster recorded for his 2009 album, Revival. The song, which chronicles the trip back home for soldiers killed overseas, became a favorite in military circles, and in its wake, Smith was asked to do a songwriting retreat in Colorado for active-duty soldiers and veterans.
"The work was so incredible, but it was too powerful for one writer to work with multiple people over the course of three days," he says. "By the end of the second day, I was totally overwhelmed with the power of what they were telling me."
When he went back to do a second workshop, Smith enlisted help from Foster and Jay Clementi, a Colorado-born, Nashville-based songwriter who'd written songs for Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, and Martina McBride. The three did two retreats in Colorado together before Smith decided to form his own organization, Songwriting With: Soldiers. The idea was not just to give soldiers returning from war a creative and emotional outlet, but also to forge a connection between the 0.5 percent of the American population who have served, or are serving, in the military and the 99.5 percent who haven't. With multiple, protracted wars overseas during the past decade, it's worth recognizing that never in this country's history has so much been asked of so few, while so little was asked of so many.
The soldiers at the Texas retreat include both those on active-duty and a few recent veterans. All of them are, or were, stationed at Fort Hood, and were referred by Vandiver, who has a private practice in nearby Harker Heights. (The military couldn't refer soldiers themselves, as it would be seen as an endorsement of Smith's program, but two psychologists from Fort Hood are present throughout the weekend as support staff.) All the soldiers showed up at the lodge on Friday evening of their own volition but most were understandably anxious.
"I didn't know what to expect," says Hartman. "When I got here, I was so apprehensive that I told my wife, 'Don't be surprised if I come straight home.'"
As a group, the soldiers defy easy characterization. There is McRae, a square-jawed, Orange County native with the compact build of a bulldog, who looks pretty much like he was plucked from central casting to play the role of the grizzled platoon sergeant (which he’s actually been in real life). Then there is Chief Warrant Officer Fatuma Salim-Shirazy, a lithe, 50-year-old, Kenyan-born Muslim woman who wears a hijab and has spent the past 20 years in the army, including tours in Somalia and Iraq. Hartman is a talkative, thrice-divorced, 42-year-old, ex-skateboard punk with closely cropped hair and an injured back that necessitates walking with a cane. Staff Sgt. (Ret.) Jaime Santiago, 33, is a tall, quiet Puerto Rico native who was recently medically discharged from the army after 12 years of service that included two tours in Iraq driving a tow truck. The two things the seven participants have in common are a PTSD diagnosis and no songwriting experience whatsoever. For Smith, who has already run songwriting programs for homeless teenagers and South African villagers affected by AIDS, the soldiers' lack of songwriting experience was not a hindrance — it was the point.
"It's really fascinating to write with people who don't know music, but have experienced some really powerful moment in their life," he says. "They speak about that trauma in a very simple way, and use common phrases, slang. That's a goldmine for songwriting. The naiveté is where the magic is."
Of course, it takes next-level talent to pull these songs out of the soldiers, and watching Smith, Foster, and Clementi do it repeatedly over the course of the weekend manages to both demystify the process and simultaneously make it more impressive. Songs often go from zero to completed in less than an hour; and while you could nitpick some of the lyrics or phrasing or musical choices, the quality of the final product is consistently astonishing.
Smith and Salim-Shirazy collaborate on a delicate but steely fingerpicked ballad called "Why Not Me?" It’s about being a Muslim and a woman serving in a military that hasn't always embraced either of those identities. Clementi and Foster work with Obregon and his wife Kim, herself a military vet, on "Calling Home," an extraordinary country tearjerker that's practically begging to be recorded by Brad Paisley or Kenny Chesney. I watch Foster employ what he called his "ranch-hand Spanish" to draw Santiago out of his shell and talk tearfully about witnessing a friend get gunned down in Iraq. They then channel that hurt into a Spanglish lament titled "Me Perdi."
The process of co-writing songs with people who don't consider themselves writers is a skill, and something Foster believes he's gotten better at as he's done more of it.
"My job as a songwriter is to go cracking my own soul open, so you have to switch gears because you're used to doing it for yourself," says Foster, whose soothing voice and fatherly warmth seems to put his co-writers immediately at ease. "I realized you have to be willing to share a part of your life with these guys, yet it always has to be about them."
In some cases, the soldiers' contributions amount to simply talking and then having their words rearranged, edited down, and augmented into rhyming couplets. Other times, it feels more like the give-and-take you'd expect to see in any songwriting session. One morning, I sit with Smith and McRae in a corner of the lodge as they work on a song called "Losing the Dream."
Previously, during the songwriting session on the first night of the weekend, McRae mostly had been sitting stone-faced, not exactly resistant to the entire exercise, but definitely skeptical. He seems almost like a different person this morning, though, leaning back, sipping on a cup of coffee, quick with a smile or an anecdote. McRae was part of the initial ground invasion of Iraq in 2003, then did two tours in Afghanistan, as well as a stint as a National Guardsman in New Orleans after Katrina, which he says may have been more distressing than anything he saw overseas. After an IED attack in Afghanistan in 2010, he was medevacked to Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and diagnosed with TBI, but says he traces his PTSD not to any specific incident.
"Even though I was a rough and tumble guy, seeing people killed and mauled and all that really tweaks what you think the world is really all about," he says. "One of my biggest problems is once it's over, I stop thinking about it and try to move on to something else. What I'm realizing in my own life is that if you don't deal with these things, they don't go away. My mom has a great saying, 'If you keep stuffing shit in the closet, eventually you're not going to be able to shut the door.'"
Back home between deployments, McRae starting drinking a lot, his marriage disintegrated, and his wife left with his kids. The song he's writing with Smith is an attempt to chronicle his slide into that abyss and his recent success at beginning to climb back out.
Smith bangs out a bluesy, energetic refrain on his guitar and sings a line they're working on from the song's bridge: "I got dark and I hit bottom / And now I see brighter days." He keeps strumming, and bobbing his head, but looks to the ground as if he’s searching there for the next line. McRae jumps in.
"With your rhythm, it's something like, 'I finally see I can change my ways," he says. "Or something like that."
Smith nods and returns to the song.
"I got dark and I hit bottom / I saw I had to change my ways/ Talk about nightmares, brother, I've got 'em / And now I see brighter days."
McRae smiles. "Umm-hmm." He stands and picks up his cup. "Want some more coffee?"
Smith shakes his head frantically. "No, don't leave, don't leave." He sings the bridge again, which leads back into the chorus: "I'm losing that dream / Losing that dream/ That's been chasing me."
McRae sits back down. "Or, 'That I always believed,'" he says.
Smith practically leaps off the couch.
"Ahhh! Fuckin' awesome! Fucking awesome! Now, you've got it. It's not rocket science. You don't need me!"
McRae laughs. "Those that know me would never believe I hung out with you artsy-fartsy guys."
When I talk to Smith a little later, he says that these are the moments that he works toward the whole weekend. "Our goal is to have this experience," he says. "For them to remember, 'These guys who weren't in the military came, hung out with me, and we got along. They saw me and we wrote this song.' Maybe they see, 'Oh, I can do this!' and that's cool, but that's their thing. What I pursue is the moment of this soldier seeing me as a civilian seeing him and listening to him."
The songs will all be recorded on the retreat's final afternoon, so the soldiers can have them to listen to whenever they want.
"We all have songs we listen to, that we carry with us," says Smith. "Maybe they'll listen to it a little, maybe a lot. Maybe five years from now, they'll find that they haven't listened to it in a year and they'll go, 'Wow, I remember when I was like that.' That's really the long-term effect."
ExpandScott McRae / Photo by Sean Mathis
Songwriting With: Soldiers is one of dozens of small grassroots, nonprofit efforts going on around the country to use music and songwriting to help soldiers and veterans deal with the physical and psychological effects of war.
Arthur Bloom, a classically trained musician who once worked at Def Jam, runs a nonprofit organization called Musicorps, which is based at Walter Reed. He works with soldiers who, in addition to their psychological and emotional trauma are also often suffering from, what he terms, "the most severe injuries that have ever been survived by humans in history." These include horrific burns, multiple amputations, and cognitive impairments that require years-long residence at Walter Reed. Music, Bloom says, helps these soldiers recover some semblance of a normal life.
"What we do is active music-making — writing, recording, and playing," he says. "That can fill up this empty time that — even if you weren't injured — you'd go out of your mind. It's something fun and productive that can get your life started again. On a physical level, playing instruments helps with dexterity. In some cases, we have experts create custom prosthetics to get guys who have missing arms playing instruments."
The goal isn't just to be able to play music, it's to be able to play it well, which has all sorts of effects on soldiers' self-esteem.
"By showing them they can do something at a high level again, they can go on and do whatever they want to do, no compromise," Bloom says. At a recent charity concert in New York called Stand Up for Heroes, a group of soldier-musicians from Musicorps backed Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters during a set of songs to raise money for the Bob Woodruff Foundation. The organization, which was founded by Woodruff, a former ABC reporter who was wounded covering the war in Iraq, is the primary funding source not only for Musicorps, but also for Songwriting With: Soldiers.
Vaudreuil, who has been running her program, Resounding Joy, since 2010, works with ex-Guns N' Roses and Cult drummer Matt Sorum to help write and record some of her clients' music. Sorum is planning on putting together the best songs on an album with contributions from a handful of well-known stars; he’s also making a documentary. But on a day-to-day level, Sorum believes the work itself has already had a tremendous impact.
"You see the changes right away in the soldiers," he says. "The feeling of them being able to put pen to paper and then sing that song is the most cathartic thing in the world."
Dustin Welch, a singer-songwriter based in Austin who has been running weekly songwriting workshops for veterans at several locations throughout Texas, says that he's seen that type of catharsis time and again.
"There's something about being able to sing a song that really moves you," he says. "You feel better when you get done with it. You're able to capture this feeling that you can almost hold in your hand and bring to someone and say, 'This is what I've got. This is what's been going on.'"
That act of sharing the song may be as important as writing it. Vaudreuil's program, in particular, focuses on getting her clients to the point where they can go out and perform their songs for others. The point isn't adulation but connection.
As she puts it, "To really have people in their family and close to them in their communities understand what they're going through without having to sit there and be like, 'I wanted to blow my head off yesterday,' really helps."
On the final afternoon of the Songwriting With: Soldiers retreat, Smith, Foster, and Clementi perform and record all ten songs that have been written over the weekend for everyone assembled. Smith has plans to do four more retreats in 2013 and eight in 2014, and then put together an album of the best songs from all of them. That will require training more songwriters because, as Foster has pointed out, the retreat takes a heavy toll on its facilitators.
"I don't think there's any way, emotionally, you could do eight of these a year," he says. "You can tell yourself, 'I want to stand a little removed from it,' and then every story sucks you in and twists you inside out. Because it's so real and you see the excruciating pain in their lives. A couple of these a year is about all you can stand."
Whether or not Smith is able to reach his goal of doing eight retreats a year remains to be seen. But in the greater scheme of things, all these programs — whether it's Songwriting With: Soldiers, Bloom's Musicorps, Dustin Welch's songwriting workshops, Vaudreuil's Resounding Joy, or several other similar ventures — will still only reach a small fraction of the service members who could benefit from them.
With relations between the military and these programs still evolving, simply getting the word out to soldiers is a challenge. Funding, too, is scant and haphazard. Even the ones that operate at military facilities do so without any government funding. The Department of Defense did recently hire its first music therapist, who will work out of Walter Reed, but with the political mood in Washington being driven by talk of a "fiscal cliff" and the perpetual need for budget cuts, it's hard to imagine any significant expansion of music therapy and songwriting workshops. But with the war in Iraq declared over and the war in Afghanistan winding down, the country is faced with reintegrating millions of service members back into society (or back into a peacetime military). And since many of those returning soldiers are suffering from unimaginable physical and psychological injuries, bumper stickers proclaiming support for the troops will not suffice.
No one at the retreat in Belton is under the delusion that songwriting or music therapy has the capacity to fix all these problems; but at least for the soldiers here, it's making a difference.
After the final performances, Smith instructs everyone to walk outside to a clearing near the lodge and join arms in a circle. He, Foster, and Clementi stand inside the circle and play "Angel Flight." It's the kind of "Kumbayah" moment that you'd expect war-hardened soldiers to recoil from, but none do. After the song, some fight back tears and express what the weekend has meant to them — McRae says it's made him realize that problems can be dealt with if you break them down and make them smaller; Hartman says it's restored his faith in people's basic decency. Then Smith delivers a few parting words and wishes them well. Everyone lingers in the clearing for a while, saying their goodbyes, but not particularly wanting to leave. Finally, McRae calls out, "I'm waiting for someone to yell, 'Dismissed!'"
Smith laughs, and then complies.