SongwritingWith:Soldiers: Using Music to Help Veterans Ease Back into Civilian Life

Founded in 2012, SongwritingWith:Soldiers (SW:S) is a non-profit that transforms lives by using collaborative songwriting to expand creativity, connections, and strengths. SW:S holds three-day retreats and custom workshops that pair veterans, active-duty and military families with professional songwriters to turn their stories of service and returning home into song.

Many veterans return home from combat and do not seek services, avoiding therapy or military resources because of the stigma associated with PTSD and depression. The Veterans Administration estimates that approximately 20 veterans take their own lives each day, and of those, 14 have little to no contact with the Department.

During SongwritingWith:Soldiers retreats, veterans and active-duty service members are paired with professional songwriters to share stories and craft songs about their experiences, often about combat and the return home. Participants are registered with ASCAP as co-writers of their songs and have ownership.

Sometimes participants know exactly what they want to say in their songs, but most of the time it’s the community of others who know the same struggles that lets participants find their emotions. And it’s the genuinely interested, empathetic ear of the artist that invites participants to openly share very personal stories that they’ve never shared at all.

Through their songs, participants rediscover their creativity and reconnect with family, friends, and communities. The songs are recorded and shared through CDs, concerts, and social media in order to bridge the divide between military and civilian communities, and build awareness of the challenges faced by our returning service members.

Though SongwritingWith:Soldiers was forced to postpone in-person retreats in recent months due to COVID-19, they pivoted to increase their online offerings, including group songwriting sessions, group calls, and online workshops and meditation sessions, so that they could continue to build and maintain human connections with veterans at a time when they may be especially vulnerable.

To date, SongwritingWith:Soldiers has hosted approximately 500 veterans and family members at their events, resulting in more than 400 songs and, much more importantly, saving marriages, families and possibly even lives along the way.

Here we’ve included more information about the impact that SongwritingWith:Soldiers has had on the lives of its participants, as well as more avenues to engage with the music created through Songwritingwith:Soldiers.

The Strade Family: Holding On

Retired Air Force Veteran Roger Strade and family.
Boulder Crest, VA. 2015.

“You have to hold on to who you are.”
Travis Strade
The Strade family joined SongwritingWith:Soldiers for an online group songwriting session in June 2020. Roger, a disabled Air Force Veteran, and his family attended one of SongwritingWith:Soldiers’s first retreats at Boulder Crest in 2015. He and his wife, Kelly, have stayed involved in the SongwritingWith:Soldiers Community, volunteering at retreats, special events, and leading creativity workshops.
The Strades have been handling many challenges. Their son Travis was diagnosed with a spontaneous epidural hematoma last year — his senior year in high school. He has been bedridden since. When songwriter Darden Smith asked ‘how do you get through?’, Travis knew that he wasn’t referring to just the pandemic, but to the family’s ongoing struggles.
“What got me through at the end of the day,” Travis said, “I knew that you have to keep everything you can. I wanted to keep the family. Keep my sense of humor. You have to hold on to who you are.” With these words, the stories began to flow. Jokes punctuated the pauses.
This family knows how to keep moving and stay together, even in these days of quarantine. Travis and his mother, Kelly, live in a handicapped accessible apartment, while Roger and Cheyenne keep the family home in order. Their strength is humbling.
Their song, “Holding On,” is a testament to courage and support.
  Holding on to each other
Holding on to who we are
Make a joke
Cry a tear
Through it all we’re still here
Holding on
Holding on

Helping PTSD & Depression

Not only does SongwritingWith:Soldiers see genuine relief and enthusiasm among participants at the retreats, there is also a small but growing amount of evidence that the retreats have long-lasting positive effects on veterans’ lives.

Harvard Massachusetts General studied SongwritingWith:Soldiers’s songwriting sessions, and found that they reduced symptoms of PTSD by 33% and of depression by 25%.

SongwritingWith:Soldiers also conducted a survey in December 2018 of retreat participants from 2012 through 2018 to gather feedback and assess longer-term effects. Of the participants surveyed:

  • 77% experienced long-term increased feelings of hope and optimism
  • 83% increased their creative pursuits following the retreat, and
  • 78% increased their connections with others

Nikki: Returning from Deployment to Quarantine
“Typically a Warriors Welcome, family, banners, hugs, tears and love. Not the case on 17 March 2020. Step off the plane, to strangers in a ’ghost buster’ van; whisked off to full government barracks quarantine; more like isolation. So on that Wednesday morning when I got the reminder email for a SW:S call, to connect and feel love, I was all in.
“I have been wanting to call in and connect on these calls since I became part of SW:S in 2012; life has always gotten in the way. On 18 March, there was no excuse and I was THRILLED. As a Soldier, being ‘alone’ can become the norm. Yes, we have our fellow Soldiers, but opportunity to be connected with humans that show love and acceptance openly is often far removed. SW:S has been a genuine outlet for me to give and receive love and acceptance as well as an outlet for creativity and expression. Grateful.
“I have now finished my 14 days and I am a better human, friend, leader and soul for having this time. I reached out, connected with friends too long neglected, sat quietly for hours and searched my heart, mind and soul for WHO I am. Reaching out to the SW:S call jump started my mindset, intentions and determination for this 14 days. Hearing the positivity, love and kindness helped me set my mind and goals for this time of solitary; to come out the other side better.
“Thank you.
– Nikki”

How to Listen to The Music

YouTube: To hear more of the songs direct from the retreats, check out SongwritingWith:Soldiers’s YouTube channel.

Stream the PBS Concert: Watch the 1-hour prime time television special, “Songwriting with Soldiers,” that premiered nationally on PBS on October 25, 2019. The concert features award-winning and chart-topping songwriters like Bonnie Bishop, Gary Burr, Beth Nielsen Chapman, Jay Clementi, Radney Foster, Mary Gauthier, James House, Will Kimbrough, Georgia Middleman, Gary Nicholson, Maia Sharp, and Darden Smith.

The Full Catalog: SongwritingWith:Soldiers hosts the full music library from its retreats on its website. Browse through the songs and albums, and then name your price when you download, knowing that all purchases are tax-deductible donations to SongwritingWith:Soldiers.

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