Transcript: Hi, this is David Brower with a special two-part podcast that every veteran, and everybody who knows a veteran, should listen to. It’s about a program that is absolutely free to vets, and it will change their lives. I know, because it changed mine forever.
Trevor Dann from the BBC takes you inside one of the retreats for songwriting with soldiers. This retreat was September 15th through 17th of last year, at the Carey Institute in Renslerville, New York.
Trevor Dann: Upstate New York in the fall has a claim to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. The trees around me are every shade of gold and purple and brown. There are deer running around and squirrels and wild turkey. There’s a pungent aroma of pine and wild thyme.
But the most important sense today is hearing because this the venue for the latest retreat organized by Songwriting with Soldiers.
Songwriter: (Singing) Something ain’t right when a kid’s nineteen, they can’t sleep at night cause of things he’s seen that day. When chaos is your comfort zone, when you’re in a crowd, but you’re all alone. You always need an exit sign insight. Something ain’t right, Something ain’t right.
Trevor Dann: In this program you’ll hear professional songwriters working with military veterans, men and women. Some have physical disabilities. Others are suffering from the less visible effects of Combat Trauma in the Killing Fields of Iraq, Afghanistan, even Vietnam. Country singer/songwriter Darden Smith.
Darden Smith: Well, I met some soldiers. I met a guy in Germany. It was the first time I’d ever spoken to a soldier and I thought I had nothing in common with him and the people he’s around. I’d been looking for a way to write a song about this experience of meeting soldiers and having something in common with them where I thought I didn’t. I heard the word angel flight and it’s a great song title. I said, “What’s an angel flight?” They said, “Angel flight’s when a soldier dies, they fly his body home.” I was like, “Okay, there’s our song.” The National Guard commissioned me to write Angel flight.
Songwriter: (singing) Fly that plane called the Angel flight. Come on brother, you’re with me tonight. Between Heaven and earth, you’re never alone. Only Angel flight, come on brother, taking you home.
Darden Smith: I was in Nashville trying to finish the song staying at Randy Foster’s house and Randy walked into the studio just to pick something up and I said, “Please sit down and help me finish this song.” Randy put it on his record and made a video that went viral and got a couple million hits on it within a pretty short period of time. Through that we started getting letters and emails from around the world from people, largely in the military community about the song and what it meant to them.
Songwriter: (Singing) Some gave a little, but he gave all. Fly that plane called the Angeflight. Come on brother, you’re with me tonight.
Darden Smith: And that was where I saw this opportunity to write songs with soldiers. Take what I do and write them. In that experience of working with the soldiers, taking their stories and put them into songs is the genesis of Songwriting with Soldiers.
Songwriter: (Singing) home, come on home, come on brother, I’m taking you home.
Doug Smith: I mean, my goal is for the soldier sitting across from me to see my seeing them and then listening to them enough to take their words, synthesize them into a song and sing it back to them.
Darden Smith: Hey everybody. I’m Darden Smith, I’m creative director of this whole thing and it is a joy to be here with you guys to write these songs. I know it might seem kind of weird, like how is this all going to work. You don’t have to be a songwriter. You don’t have to be a poet. All you have to do is be yourself. What we do as writers is we bring ourself to it. We got skills in writing songs. Thank goodness because I don’t know what we’d do if we couldn’t do that. Anyway, okay you don’t have to pretend. You don’t have to think about, “Oh my God, what am I gonna write about.” The song will happen. You know, we’re not a religious organization. We’re not political. We’re not military. Look at me, you can tell I’m not a vet, you know, it’s just like, we are who we are. We have some special guests, my friend Trevor Dann is here from the BBC in London. Okay, that’s enough. That’s enough. That’s enough. Please so Trevor might want to come up and talk to you about what you’re doing here and just like that, you know. but if you’re uncomfortable, you don’t have to talk to him. Many times, I see Trevor and I don’t talk to him.
Trevor Dann: Josh, tell me about 422 and your colossal journey.
Josh: I rode my power wheel chair 422 miles from Angola, Indiana back to Buffalo, New York. The numbers represent the approximate number of veteran suicides a day here in the United States and so it was basically 422 miles for the 422 that are taking their lives every day.
Trevor Dann: Now, Songwriting with Soldiers. It’s become a passion for you, hasn’t it?
Trevor Dann: Can you tell me about your first experience when you got involved with it.
Josh: Shortly before I attended my first retreat here in 2015, I had attempted suicide and I was getting ready to make another attempt and my wife, Lisa found Songwriting with Soldiers doing some searching on the internet and contacted them. They were able to get us in and I kind of told myself that I would wait on the second attempt until I would give it one more shot and came here and I was paired up with Mary Gauthier and writing my song with Mary kind of just give me a new prospective, I guess is the simplest way to say it. That one small encounter with her changed everything for me.
Songwriter: (Singing) You were my brother. You were more than my friend. You were family to me right up to the end, but you’re still with me now. I feel ya, brother I know you’re pushing me forward and you’ll never let go. I shouldn’t be here, you shouldn’t be gone.
Josh: I attended the retreat and it was the Tuesday before thanksgiving here in November, just about a month later, I got an email from Mary saying, “Hey would you be interested in playing at the Opry with me?” They invited me, and I told them about our song and it kind of reaffirmed my new outlook and new perspective was after playing there having so many people come up to me and talk to me about the song and how it reached them and I had one lady tell me that she hasn’t been able to show any emotion in years and years and she said she was able to cry for the first time. She thanked me and I was just really taken back because I was apprehensive about people even hearing it.
Songwriter: (Singing) Oh, I sit in my room and I close my eyes. Me and my guardian angel still on the rise.
Trevor Dann: It sounds to me, I don’t want to be too sloppy about this, but it sounds to me as though this program has helped you get him back.
Lisa: Yeah, absolutely. I thought he was lost forever and he’s back.
Perry Holmes: My name is Perry Holmes. I come from a musical family so before and after the military, music has always been a big part of my life and my mom actually found this program and she was very adamant about me showing up to the program and participating so that’s how I ended up here.
Trevor Dann: I expected that because there were so many acoustic guitars that this would be a folk event or a sort of country event. Now that’s not your background, is it? You’re from the family of the Detroit Spinners and who is it, your godmother?
Perry Holmes: My grandfather was Pervis Jackson, the bass singer for the Detroit Spinners, my mother’s father. Yeah, my godmother’s Martha Reeves. Yes, I was just at her birthday party actually in Detroit like about two months ago.
Trevor Dann: You are allowed to namedrop.
Perry Holmes: I know It can be obnoxious.
Trevor Dann: So what kind of song did you end up singing here?
Perry Holmes: I wrote a song about a friend of mine that I lost while I was deployed. I was a combat medic so I was the guy that looked out for the guys that work with explosives. I was like the first responder there with them in case something happened and I had a buddy of mine that lost his life to an explosion and it’s really affected my life a lot. Just that whole experience and so it only seemed right for, you know, me to kind of talk about that and my song was really cathartic for me.
Songwriter: (Singing) My buddy wrote a goodbye letter home from the FOB McHenry Danger Zone. It said, “If you’re reading this, I’m not gonna make it back to you. I hope you know you gave me a good life. I am always grateful you’re my wife. Oh, I hate to make you cry and then I have to say goodbye so soon. I’m not saying that writing a letter was wrong, but getting home was what I’m betting on. I know”
Trevor Dann: They say it’s cathartic. I’m still not quite sure why or what … are you any closer to knowing what’s the difference between you know, writing a song about it and just talking about it?
Perry Holmes: Well, I think music, in general, it allows you an opportunity to be heard in a different way than when you’re just speaking. I think it allows the person who’s come up with the song and the music to feel heard in a way that is very lasting and that they probably wouldn’t feel heard if they weren’t putting their, what they’ve been through into music.
Songwriter: (Singing) Always high speed, always tracking, in the black of the Iraqi countryside. Now I’m standing in formation and a pine and a pine box salute and the sunshine never felt so cold.
Perry Holmes: My experience being a soldier that was diagnosed with PTSD and coming out of the military is that there are a lot of soldiers that don’t have wounds that you can see, that are dealing with some very, very serious issues and people look at them and they only see able-bodied men and women and they think, okay, these people are fine. They should be doing this or they should be doing that and they don’t realize the trauma that these people have been through.
Songwriter: (Singing) enough to tell you later I’m never gonna write that letter, never, ever
Trevor Dann: That’s the California-based singer/songwriter Maya Sharp with the song she’s been writing this morning with Perry.
David Brower: That’s Part one of Songwriting with Soldiers with Trevor Dann from the BBC. Be sure to listen for Part 2 as you’ll hear the exact process that songwriters and vets use to come up with life changing songs.
Allan: Your twenty-minute podcast with David Brower has been brought to you by Audible. You can listen to any of David’s podcasts anywhere podcast can be found, including My Heart Radio, the Spotify mobile app, and the David Brower VO.com/yourtwentyminutepodcast. Until next time, thanks for listening.