About four years ago I wrote a song with my friend Radney Foster called “Angel Flight.” The song changed my life. We wrote it for the Texas National Guard, to honor the pilots who fly the planes that bring fallen soldiers home. Radney put the song on his Revival CD, and we started getting letters from people who were moved by the song. Building on that, and on experiences I had writing songs with people who’ve experienced trauma, I wondered what it would be like to write songs with soldiers, to help them tell their stories. From this beginning, came SongwritingWith:Soldiers

The program started with a simple concept: put together weekend retreats pairing professional songwriters with soldiers and veterans to write songs based on their stories of combat and returning home.

They talk. We listen. Together we turn their stories into songs. That’s our mission.

As a songwriter, I know that turning a dark part of your life into a song can be a huge relief, and a release. Many of the soldiers coming home today are suffering from one form of trauma or another. They carry the shadow of what they’ve seen and what they’ve lost. And many of them feel invisible in their own country. They feel unheard. Our goal is for these soldiers to see us, as civilians, seeing them.

When we sit down to write with soldiers, our job is to be still, very still, keep asking questions, and let the story come out. Eventually, they always say some word, a phrase, that we can build a song around. Simple words for difficult thoughts. We put their words together with chords and a melody to try to capture the essence of their story. We go for the truth. Sometimes we miss the mark, and they never hesitate to tell us so. We stay at it till we get it right

SongwritingWith:Soldiers uses the songwriter’s craft in the service of these soldiers and their stories. That means bringing in writers who can honor the story and co-write without ego. For the process to work, we as writers have to become conduits through which raw emotions from combat, loss, and the turmoil of returning home are transformed into creative objects. Sometimes we get slammed (a therapist would call it secondary trauma). That’s part of the job. So is learning how to let it go.

On the final day of the retreat, we record on site all the songs written over the weekend. It’s important for the soldiers to share each other’s songs, and to share their own words with their families and communities back home. The soldiers are registered with ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers); should the songs earn any royalties, they get a cut. We give them ownership of their story.

SongwritingWith:Soldiers has taken me to a new place as a musician by turning the spotlight away from myself and onto others. The other writers involved feel the difference too. We share the joy of striving to make a song the best it can possibly be, but for a purpose beyond just getting on the radio or selling records. It’s about another person’s soul.

Everyone involved, including the director (Mary Judd), staff, guests, mental health workers, vendors, volunteers, and of course the soldiers’ families, are touched by this process. To build on that, we are developing an online forum to further the connections. In a ripple effect, the positive impact of SongwritingWith:Soldiers expands outward and will, we hope, continue to expand.

At the same time, I am determined to stay true to what makes this program unique. To keep doing what we do, just as well as we possibly can. Write songs. With soldiers.

— Darden Smith