photo by Rick Loomis

I never intended to attend a SongwritingWith:Soldiers retreat myself. I simply came to the organization wanting to help in any way I can. Yes, I am a veteran. I served in the Army Reserves from 1991 to 1999 and spent many months packed and waiting for orders to deploy to the war zone, but I never received those orders. I served during war, but I am not a combat veteran. I felt like I didn’t need it. I didn’t deserve that opportunity.  I hadn’t earned it.

Yet PTSI (Post Traumatic Stress Injury) and trauma come in many forms. For me, it began with my wife’s diagnosis of end-stage liver disease after battling alcoholism throughout her life. My role immediately changed from wife to caretaker. After several years of struggle, I received the phone call from the hospice right before midnight on June 19, 2016. She was gone. She was dead at 51 years old, and I was a widow at 47. It took many months for me to realize I was suffering from PTSI.

During that recovery, I decided to treat myself to a Mary Gauthier concert. She spoke passionately about her work with SongwritingWith:Soldiers and sang a few of the songs she had written with the soldiers and their families. After the show, I walked up to her with hand extended, looked her directly in the eyes, shook her hand, and said, “Thank you.” It was a simple moment that changed my life forever. Not long after that moment, I found myself talking with Mary Judd about the organization, and as soon as she realized I was a veteran myself, she asked me if I’d like to attend a retreat. I did initially turn her down since I didn’t feel like I needed it or deserved it, but with Mary Gauthier’s assistance, she did finally convince me to give it a try.

I attended the first retreat at the Heart J Center at Sylvan Dale Ranch in Loveland, Colorado. I went into the experience with no expectations but with an open heart and mind. I was paired up with songwriter, JD Martin, a complete stranger to me, and we sat down together with a piano and a guitar, and over the course of a few hours, something miraculous happened. Simply put — we wrote a song. But it’s much more than that. We talked. We shared. We connected. I told him about moments I have never spoken about with anyone else, and he listened with empathy and without judgement. We took my pain and anger, and together we created something beautiful. We created art.

Later that evening, everyone got together to perform and hear all the songs written that day—songs that didn’t exist that morning. I believe this is the actual beginning of post-traumatic growth. We sat together—a group of people who were strangers the day before—and we listened to our songs, our pain, our hopes and fears, and we are forever connected by that sharing, that listening, that understanding. We are no longer alone when we share our story, and we hear other people say, “Yes, I understand. I’ve felt that too.”

I have to admit I cried throughout the drive to the airport the next day, and at the airport while I sat and drank coffee while trying to hide my face, and throughout the flight home. I wasn’t crying because I was sad. I was crying with relief. There is a letting go that happens when you speak your truth, and it is truly heard by others. Since I’ve been home, I have found myself picking up my guitar again after it sat in its case for years. I have found myself writing poetry again. I have found myself reaching out to others including my new SW:S family. I have found myself wanting to live fully again. Am I cured of my PTSI? Of course not. It’s far more complicated than that. I continue to see a therapist and practice yoga and meditation and all the other recommendations. Yet I’m sleeping well for the first time in years. A burden has been lifted, and my heart feels lighter. This experience has reinvigorated my desire to live a full life, and that is a gift that can’t be quantified. It’s something I hope every veteran has the opportunity to experience.

Rachel Kennon