They’ve faced grave danger while protecting the freedom of the United States of America. Now some soldiers are tackling a new challenge here at home: learning to play the guitar and write songs.
Soldier Songs and Voices is a program that’s not only helping veterans and active military learn to play an instrument, it’s also an opportunity for program organizers and musicians to express their support for men and women in uniform.
“It’s really an expression of gratitude. I think they get that message of thanks and they get to learn something that’s inherently social and our hope is that they can get back to their lives as fast as possible and then maybe tell us some of the experiences they’ve had,” musician and teacher Owen Temple explains.
Soldier Songs and Voices has been hosting Monday night guitar and songwriting classes at Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos since summer of 2011. Musician and songwriter Dustin Welch leads the sessions with the help of other musicians volunteering their time teaching. The group recently added a Sunday afternoon session at Saxon Pub.
“What we’re doing is just kind of offering veterans an outlet and giving them the tools to be able to write songs for themselves, which as any songwriter knows is a cathartic and therapeutic process,” Welch says.
“It allows these guys to express things that they may not feel right about expressing to a therapist or to their loved ones.” Welch says he became involved after recognizing a disconnect between civilians and veterans.
“It allows these [soldiers] to express things that they may not feel right about expressing to a therapist or to their loved ones.”
Sergeant Shawn Dunham completed two tours of Iraq and is currently stationed at Fort Hood. He makes the drive to the Saxon Pub most Sundays to hang out with some buddies, learn some new chords and learn to put some of his thoughts to music.
“It’s awesome. It’s a great program. I’ve got a song I’m working on right now. It’s called ‘Only the Dead Have Seen the End of War.’ Dustin’s working on it with me and it’s pretty dark…being able to express it on paper and then trying to put it to music — it’s a therapy that’s good for me.”
Sergeant Dunham says the program has also reminded him that people appreciate what he and other members of the military sacrifice for this country.
“I’ve seen too many friends of mine that were killed in action and every now and then it comes back and haunts you, but to be able to come in here with these guys — I never knew we had this kind of support.”
Former Marine Gene Vela’s unit was part of the initial invasion of Iraq. He suffers from PTSD and says he decided to pick up guitar at the suggestion of one of his friends and fellow veterans. “I think it’s good therapy. It’s good to get rid of all those pent up thoughts that are just floating around your head, get them out and put them on paper and put them into a song.”
Dustin Welch says doing something for themselves like learning guitar helps some veterans express themselves. For others, it’s just good fun that helps them get back to as normal a life as possible after they’re discharged. For all, it’s a chance to bond with fellow veterans who have shared many common experiences they’re not always comfortable talking about.
“One of our biggest challenges we’re having is trying to get the attention of a lot of these veterans because they may be reluctant to come and feel like they have to bare their soul. But really we’re just sitting around talking about music and getting to learn how to play rock and roll,” Welch says. “The beauty of learning an instrument is you can get whatever you want from it.”
Sergeant Dunham says his wife sees a glow about him when he has a guitar in his hands. He says being part of this group is both inspiring and affirming.
“I can’t say thank you enough to these guys for doing what they’re doing. There are just so many avenues that are opening up…and the support that we’re getting from everybody — it’s just overwhelming."
If you’re a veteran who would like to learn to play guitar or write songs, you can show up to one of the free Soldier Songs and Voices workshops. They’re every Sunday from 1p.m. to 3p.m. at Saxon Pub and every Monday night from 5p.m. to 7p.m. at Cheatham Street Warehouse. Soldier Songs and Voices is also looking for musicians who’d like to volunteer their time to help teach veterans how to play guitar or to write songs. Soldier Songs and Voices hosts sessions across the country and new ones are in the works for Houston and La Grange.