The recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq took a large toll on Texas, including countless numbers of warriors whose wounds were outwardly invisible. There’s been a growing recognition that Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, has contributed to a rise in suicide rates, acute depression, substance abuse and broken homes. But an innovative project aims to bring about healing by helping soldiers explore their fears and frustrations through songwriting.
The project is called SongwritingWith:Soldiers. It’s helped more than 120 veterans and active-duty members of the military unpack the hidden baggage they’ve been carrying with them since 2012.
In a small cabin room in a woodsy Central Texas retreat a soldier sits on a sofa beside his wife. She keeps looking at his face, touching his arm occasionally, as if to reassure him of her presence.
“Well for me, it’s been four tours,” he says. “It came down to losing my family or deal with my PTSD. And sometimes it’s hard to get them to understand anything that we’re doing or the feelings that I feel.”
This is Staff Sgt. Eustacio Obregon. He speaks about his first deployment. “I’ve never shared any of this. This is all new for me. I’ve kept all of this bottled up since 2003.”
Across the table from the Sgt. and his wife, Radney Foster leans over his road-worn Gibson guitar, jotting down ideas on a notepad. As he writes, the couple begins to reminisce about three stars, a constellation each of them would look up to every night just to have a connection during those long months between phone calls.
Suddenly Foster drops his pen on the table as if he’s been struck in the gut. “That’s a song, man that’s a song,” he says.
And then a song begins to take shape. A soldier’s song.
Darden Smith created the SongwritingWith: organization in 2011 and has worked with many people who wish to tell their stories and alleviate trauma through music.
“When we sit down to write a song. We just ask them questions. We get quiet. And we let them talk,” Smith says. “We’ve taken this burden, these stories off their shoulders in a way.”
This isn’t therapy, but there’s no denying something healing about this process nonetheless, says retreat volunteer Dr. Jerry Wesch from Ft. Hood.
“The music is a way of moving emotion and images and ideas out of you into an objective form where you can see what it is,” he says. “Where you can express it. Where you can face and honor what’s happened to you.”
But not all soldiers are willing to come to the retreat, at first, but most end up with an experience they’ll never forget.