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Strumming The Pain, Songwriters Play Vets' Stories

At a retreat outside Fort Hood, Texas, a group of Army veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress agreed to try something new. Now they're collaborating with accomplished songwriters to capture their stories through music.

In a small cabin room at the woodsy, Central Texas retreat, Staff Sgt. Eustacio Obregon sits on a sofa beside his wife. She keeps looking at his face, touching his arm as if to reassure him of her presence.

"Well, for me, it's been four tours. From the first one to the last one, it's just a constant buildup — everything tacked on until it was just ... [I] had one of those moments," he says. It came down to either losing his family or dealing with his PTSD.

'Simple Words Make Great Songs'

Obregon stares down at the floor, fumbling with his watch. He recalls his first deployment and his desperation to find a phone in the middle of the Iraqi desert to call home.

"Everything that I could do just to get a phone call so I could hear her voice, tell her that I love her, let her know that I'm OK," he says. "I've never shared any of this. This is all new for me. I've kept all this bottled up since 2003."

On the other side of the coffee table, singer-songwriter Radney Foster of the SongwritingWith:Soldiers project listens closely and takes notes.

Obregon and his wife begin to reminisce about the stars they'd look up to each night to keep a connection during deployment. Foster picks up his road-worn Gibson guitar and begins to play.

"Looked at our stars tonight, said I loved you then I said goodnight, tomorrow I'm gonna say it all again," he sings.

Foster says the clipped style of military speech actually contributes to the collaborative process. "Simple words make great songs," he says.

"You know I've written with people who've been shot, or amputees, have post-traumatic stress — there's something about that that makes them speak in poetry," Foster says, "and they don't know they're doing it."

'We Let Them Talk'

At this weekend retreat, 10 soldiers — veterans of multiple deployments, all dealing with some form of post-traumatic stress — agree to be paired with professional, established songwriters. Singer-songwriter Darden Smith is the founder of the project.

"The way that the process works when we're writing with soldiers, when we sit down to write a song, we just ask 'em questions," Smith says. "We get quiet. And we let them talk."

Smith is quick to underscore that this isn't therapy. But Dr. Jerry Wesch, a clinical psychologist based at Fort Hood, says there is something healing about the process.

"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, where you can express it," he says, "where you can face and honor what's happened to you. And the process has been amazing."

Listening To His Own Story

Sgt. 1st Class Scott McRae is also giving the process a try. He served in the invasion of Iraq and has done two tours in Afghanistan, but he admits he was reluctant to come here.

"I'm certainly not an artsy kind of guy, so [I] was a little apprehensive," he says.

McRae sits on a couch, slumped back in his oversized khaki jacket. He begins to share his story with Smith through a clenched fist covering his mouth. He says that his life is starting to make sense to him.

"That old dream is starting to make sense. ... It's a different dream now. It's not the same one," he says.

His words become lyrics: "I went to war one man, came home another/I loved that bottle just like a brother/Saw that white picket fence just disappear."

McRae leans forward, now completely engaged in the process. He's listening to his own story.

"You know, I have come a ways from where I used to be, and it's been really a powerful experience for me," he says.

The song continues: "I got a new dream/I got a new dream ..."

The project is in its infancy, but has drawn major donors, including The Bob Woodruff Foundation and Lockheed Martin. There are plans to expand nationally in 2013.

Copyright 2021 KUT 90.5. To see more, visit KUT 90.5.

David D. Brown is executive producer and host of the award-winning cultural journalism program Texas Music Matters at NPR affiliate KUT-FM in Austin. He is former anchor of the award-winning public radio business program Marketplace, and a veteran public radio journalist. He has reported national and international affairs for Monitor Radio from bases in Atlanta, Boston, London, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.
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