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Musicians put veterans' experiences into song

At a music camp in Colorado, military veterans struggling to readjust work with singer-songwriters to put their experiences into songs.

February 26, 2012|By Tony Perry, Los Angeles Times
  • Jay Clementi, from right, works with Marine Cpl. Angel Gomez and Army Sgt. Tyler Daly during LifeQuests music camp.
Jay Clementi, from right, works with Marine Cpl. Angel Gomez and Army Sgt.… (Mariah Tauger, For The Times )

Reporting from Colorado Springs, Colo. — — Darden Smith, who knows nothing of being a soldier in combat, and Kenneth Sargent, who has never written a song, are working together this day.

Sargent, an Army staff sergeant, talks of his fear when he was wounded by a rocket attack in Iraq, how his legs went numb and how he was overwhelmed by a sense of isolation when he was strapped to a stretcher and lifted onto the medevac helicopter sent to rescue him from the battlefield.

Smith takes Sargent's words and adds musical stylings from his six-string guitar. As Sargent watches and listens, Smith sings the soldier's words in country-western tones:

After it was over the calm was terrifying

I tried to look around to see where I was lying

What seemed like hours was only minutes to me

Before I knew it I was on that Blackhawk not knowing my destiny.

The unlikely pairing of the singer-songwriter from Austin, Texas, and the noncommissioned officer from a field artillery unit is part of an effort by a Colorado-based nonprofit organization to use music to help military veterans with their post-war transition, either to civilian life or back to military duty.

Many of the veterans, like Sargent, have been wounded in combat and are still struggling with injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have been forced out of military service by their injuries — the term is "medically retired" — and have lost the comradeship and sense of purpose that were central to their lives. Others are alienated by suddenly being returned to the civilian community where few people know, or care, about the gritty details of life and death in a war zone.

The goal of the music camp program is to allow the veterans to unburden themselves of memories bottled up inside and hindering their transition. Two such camps have been held; more are planned, depending on fundraising. So far, about 20 veterans have participated; organizers hope for more as word spreads.

"It gives the veterans an opportunity to put their experiences into words and melody so they don't have to carry those bad things with them," Smith said.

The music camps also bring together civilians and military personnel — two segments of American society not often in contact in a country in which national security is no longer a shared responsibility. "There's an us and them in America," said Smith, "when it should just be us. I want to use music to change that."

Sargent, 41, a native of Killeen, Texas, has undergone repeated surgeries for his back injuries and hopes to return to active duty and deploy to Afghanistan. His tattoos mark his combat deployments, with four blood droplets symbolizing close friends killed in Iraq. He puts the songwriting experience in military terms.

"With my song, it's like I can finally put my pack down," he said. "The hardest thing about coming home is that people don't understand what we went through because we don't talk about it. I want people to listen."

Tyler Daly, 28, from Loomis, Calif., did two infantry deployments to Iraq. Injured by a roadside bomb, he was medically retired from the Army as a sergeant and is blunt about why he came to the music camp. He has suffered depression, nightmares and anxiety and has been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury.

"To me, it's about healing," he said of the recent camp. "I just want to heal."

His song, "Living on the Edge," written with fellow Army veterans Pat Marques and John Wall and put to music by singer-songwriter Jay Clementi, explores a side of military life that may seem counterintuitive to civilians: the excitement of combat, excitement that makes life back home seem stale.

I can't get that feeling back

It's time I tell my story

About how it was back then

I'm living on the edge of dying.

Songs of experience

The songs are markedly apolitical; most of the veterans are resolutely proud of their service. But occasionally a note of bewilderment about the meaning of the U.S. mission in Iraq creeps in.

Katie Robinson, 43, a combat videographer from Detroit who is medically separating from the Air Force, wrote "Back to Life," with Smith and singer-songwriter Georgia Middleman. Among the lines: "Sometime I have to see / The point of it all / Was I right to answer the call?"

Most of the songs center on the experience of combat: being pinned down by enemy fire, the horror of a bomb exploding beneath your Humvee, the death of a buddy.

The music camp for veterans was the brainchild of C.W. Conner, the Army veteran who founded LifeQuest Transitions two years ago in Colorado Springs, Colo. LifeQuest uses sports to help military veterans retrieve their self-confidence — an approach used, among other places, at the Naval Medical Center San Diego.

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