Writing For a Veteran

In my last post, “Reconcile,” I took a deep dive into the trauma that came up for me during my time in Nashville. Today, I’ll stick to the story.

FRIDAY

At 10 am, Jeff and I arrived at the Grand Ole Opry, one of America’s premier stages and the place where CreatiVets’ writing sessions happen.

Standing in the hallway before meeting the veterans, I was introduced to the other writers all of whom were returning to donate their time and talent to writing a song with survivors of wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. (Every time they do this there are five writing teams who each come up with a song.)

Shortly thereafter, the Vets arrived and each team was photographed on the Opry stage and then given a room to complete their assignment. Our writing spot was one of dozens of highly ornate dressing rooms that would be our creative home for the next five hours.

My group consisted of Jeff and me and two Veterans. One was Tim, a man who had already been through this process, and Brett, the former soldier who was to be the subject of our song.

Brett immediately struck me as a peaceable man. He had joined the Marines at eighteen to qualify for the GI bill. Prior to his deployment to Fallujah, Brett was hoping he would land a post in Intelligence as his recruiter had indicated he might. This wasn’t to be.

Instead, Brett arrived with his platoon just as the allied forces were bombing Fallujah. The next step was for the Marines including his platoon – to go house to house “cleaning out the rats,” a highly dangerous job.

On that first day, Brett’s platoon leader, a kind man who had bonded with Brett, was killed in action. Brett was still ready to go into battle, but a higher up saw something on Brett’s face (grief) and assigned Brett to guard duty, instead. This meant that his buddies were going to risk their lives while he had to stay behind. On top of grief then, Brett felt frustration and the fear that he’d be ostracized for not “manning up.”

Brett told us his story interrupted by important tangents about his childhood and his hometown in Iowa. Again, Brett seemed like a very peaceful man, but he acknowledged that his training was geared to teaching him to become a savage in a kill or be killed war.

(As Jeff explained to me later, this transformation of turning boys into killers is what the songwriters hear over and over again.)

Somewhere around 1:30 or 2:00pm, Brett shared a poem with us. He had written it that morning. In Brett’s poem, he compared his nineteen year old self, the one who became a killer, to a canvas on which the military had painted a new version of him. It was a striking and apt metaphor on which to build the chorus of Brett’s song.

SATURDAY

Overnight, Jeff completed the charts for our song (Paint) and the four other songs written by the other teams. We headed to the Rukkus Room, a recording studio, to meet the other teams.

Jamie Tate, Rukkus Room

A six-piece band of studio musicians led by Jeff proceeded to learn and play each of the songs in about three hours time. The engineer, Jamie Tate, and the musicians weren’t just fast – they were excellent – giving each tune exactly what it needed to support the lyrics and melody. For me, seeing this part was one of the trip’s highlights. I’d heard about the quality of Nashville musicians and studios for years and I was psyched to see them ply their trade.

Our song was third and Brett was pumped to hear the results. I couldn’t help looking at him as the time got closer. It was clear that he was grateful because every time we spoke, he offered his thanks with a big grin and a handshake. This, more than anything, was the core reason I came to town…to offer some sort of honor and joy to this man’s life.

Brett

My last responsibility was to head into the vocal booth and sing “Paint” while the band recorded the music. This is called a “scratch vocal” and the plan is to replace it sometime later in my home studio.

Though my heart was in my throat, I did the job and the moment was over.

An hour or so later, we said our goodbyes to all of the musicians, the Vets and went on to our next stop, a recital featuring Samantha, Jeff’s daughter.

SUNDAY

I was proud of my part. One of my strengths, the ability to deeply listen to someone during the creative process, was instrumental in giving Brett the space he needed to explore his trauma with us. Jeff told me that this skill of mine is even more important than the song and it was a good part of the reason he invited me to Nashville. Not every hit songwriter can do what’s needed for this project.

A song, like many works of creation, is often born out of a single, magical moment when the creators capture something in the air and bring it down to earth. In this case, like many that Beth and I take part in, it is also a healing experience. I’m so glad to have this in my life.

Beth told me that birds only sing when they feel safe. I hear them outside my window as I write this. May Brett hear them, too.

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