A program created by songwriter Darden Smith, SongwritingWith:Soldiers is not music therapy, nor is it a songwriting workshop. It’s about listening and using music to let soldiers tell their stories, and even more importantly, make them feel heard.
Smith has spent more than 10 years using his songwriting to help others. He began the Be an Artist program in 2003 to inspire creativity in children. He’s even used songwriting as a tool in conflict resolution.
His first real contact with the military was at a concert for wounded soldiers at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. “I had a conversation with a Marine and found that I had a great deal in common with him,” says Smith who had previously felt somewhat disconnected from the military. Smith and the Marine, Lt. Fred Cale, started talking about the idea of writing songs with soldiers, but at first, Smith didn’t know how to get started.
Cale put Smith in contact with the Texas National Guard. “I came up with the idea to write a song called ‘Angel Flight’ to commemorate fallen soldiers and the people who fly them home,” says Smith, who co-wrote the song with Radney Foster.
When Foster put the song on his record and launched a video to go along with it, Smith was contacted by some veteran’s groups. That led to his first songwriting session with soldiers, an experience he describes as intense. “It was a powerful experience, too powerful for one guy on his own. I knew that if I had collaborators, other songwriters who were adept at the co-writing process, it would be faster and we could help each other through the emotional impact.”
Smith carefully chose his collaborators and launched SongwritingWith:Soldiers. “The people we choose to work with are masters of the craft of collaborative songwriting, co-writing. They have to be quiet and listen and be politically neutral to provide a listening place for these soldiers,” he says, explaining the process. “People speak in poetry and when you tell your story, even if it’s a really hard story to tell, a traumatic story, you use simple words. Simple language is what songs are based on. Eventually the soldier says something that’s a song title. Then, you start basing the song on their words. Once they hear their words being sung back to them in a song, they open up.”
A team of four songwriters goes to various Veterans Administrations, hospitals, and vet centers around the country to create two- or three-day programs. They work with about 12 to 15 soldiers at a time. “Songwriters vary, but there’s a basic core group we work with,” explains Smith, who attends each retreat.
“The most rewarding part is seeing the transition in a soldier from being shut down, or having a difficult time opening up and telling his story, to feeling like he can trust the telling, and even come up with new stories,” says Smith. “The gift of songwriting is very powerful when you turn around and use the songwriting craft in the service of other people to help them tell a story.”
“I continually meet these amazing soldiers that are overlooked by a large part of our society—just sort of ignored and taken for granted,” says Smith. “I’ve learned a lot about service and what it means to serve in my own life. I’ve been reconnected with the power of collaborative songwriting.”
Smith recalls one experience from last January. He met a soldier that had been a Marine. He got out and couldn’t handle civilian life, so he re-enlisted in the Army. He had been shot in the face in combat and had a lot of trauma. When he arrived to write he was emotionally reserved, arms crossed, recalls Smith.
“He was having a hard time smiling because of his wounds and his trauma,” says Smith. “After one day of writing, the next day he was the first person back to the retreat. He had a piece of paper with stuff he’d written that night. One day of writing songs with us had opened him up to his own writing.”
“We wrote a song on the second day called ‘Numb,’ about being emotionally numb,” recalls Smith. “After two days of writing he stood up, knocked over his chair, threw his arms open wide, and said, ‘I’m addicted to this, I’ve got to write more. I’ve got to tell my story.’ That, to me, is what it’s all about.”
“We record the songs at the retreat and they are posted on our website,” says Smith. Some have even found their way onto records. Songwriter Radney Foster will be including a song he wrote with three soldiers—Mario Candela, Jimmy Perez, and Manny Orona—as a bonus track on his next album. The song, written in Spanish, is called “No me preguntes,” which means “don’t ask me any questions.”
An interesting added benefit of SongwritingWith:Soldiers has been the sharing of stories and experiences across generations of veterans. For example, Perez and Candela are both post-9/11 veterans, while Orona served in Vietnam.
“When SongwritingWith:Soldiers began we focused on post-9/11 soldiers. Since then, we’ve expanded to work at vet centers and VA hospitals. When you work in those setting it’s about 50/50 post-9/11 and older Vietnam era vets. There’s a lot of similarity in their stories, and at the same time, they had a very different experience coming back to America.”
The recordings made at the retreats are inspiring, but Smith’s goals are bigger. “I want to make records, sure. But
SongwritingWith:Soldiers is about the moment where a soldier realizes that he’s told his story and someone has listened, a civilian has listened. My personal goal for SongwritingWith:Soldiers is for the soldier to see a civilian seeing them. And when they do, it’s huge,” he explains. “This isn’t just about the soldiers. It’s about society welcoming them back in.”
“I hoped, in starting this, maybe I could find a way where music and songs could open the door for more people in our culture to see that we have a lot more in common with soldiers than we think, if we, as civilians, will just open our eyes,” he says.
Though the organization welcomes donations, Smith would like people inspired by his story to also take action. “Look around in your community for someone who has served. I would encourage your readers to take their own skills, whatever they are, and look for somebody to serve and it doesn’t have to be a soldier; it could be the person next door,” he says.
Many of the songs co-written with soldiers during the retreats can be sampled and purchased at the website www.songwritingwithsoldiers.org/the-music.