It was lunchtime on the last day of the SongwritingWith: Soldiers retreat, held at the Carey Conference Center in Rensselaerville Aug. 23-25. Rebekah Layton and Beth Nielsen Chapman had been working on their song together for over three hours, and had only managed to come up with the first verse.
“I can’t do this in one day. It’s crazy,” Chapman said, after once again moving the capo on her guitar to a new position and trying out a new chord progression and melody.
The retreats give soldiers and veterans a chance to talk about their experiences in the service with professional songwriters, who then compose songs based on the conversations — this particular retreat had 11 soldiers and veterans either participating for the first time or returning to volunteer. Chapman, a professional songwriter known for co-writing Faith Hill’s 1998 hit “This Kiss,” among others; and Layton, a Rensselaerville native and former military police captain with the U.S. Army, had been working on different songs throughout the weekend in various group settings.
Their session together on Sunday was proving to be one of the most challenging ones all weekend, however, for both soldier and songwriter. The two, along with photographer and fellow veteran Stacy Pearsall, sat in a circle on benches overlooking a huge field.
At first, Layton wanted to focus on home — both missing it while on duty, and seeing the changes that occurred while she was gone. But as she began to talk, everything else came into focus — the 15 months in Iraq, the struggles with overbearing commanding officers, and her life now with a husband (also a veteran) and 2-year-old daughter at home.
The sun was out, the scene was picturesque, but the conversation was swinging back to that first soldier that died on Layton’s watch when a rocket blast hit her platoon early on in her Iraq deployment.
“When that first kid died, there was a full moon out, and I remember looking up and just seeing blood in the sky,” Layton said. “It took a long time before I could look at the moon again without seeing blood.”
Her words hung in the air, and for a while no one spoke. Then Chapman picked up her black acoustic guitar and began to play and sing into her hand-held digital recorder.
When Layton enlisted in the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in 2001, she felt she was answering a higher calling.
In 2005, Layton shipped out to Iraq. Early on in her deployment, the platoon she was leading was struck with a rocket during the night. Seven soldiers were injured, and a 19-year-old soldier died in the blast. It was the first incident that made Layton question her idealistic view of joining the military.
Later, after the platoon’s deployment was extended by three months to help pave the way for the 2007 troop surge, they lost another soldier — this one a father of three young children.
“We were already supposed to be back,” Layton said. “Again, how do you explain that there’s some purpose to that, to yourself? Some of the things I had a very tough time with mentally, but you deal with it, you move on. It shattered my naive, idealistic view of the world, and I still am — I had to move forward with a bit of a sarcastic chip on my shoulder, taking what the world throws at me.”
Layton is back in Rensselaerville, a Ph.D. student at the University at Albany, and she continues to be on Inactive Ready Reserve until October. With so much going on, there was never really a chance for Layton to reflect on her experiences in Iraq.
“For me, the first few months back were the most difficult, but then I put it aside,” Layton said. “As a military police officer ... you don’t get to go home and rest and recuperate; you jump back into your police duties. You don’t have time to relax or think about it.”
The organizers behind SongwritingWith: Soldiers, looking for local veterans to participate in the first Northeast retreat and third overall, ended up contacting Layton due to her background in social psychology. She jumped at the chance to both hear other soldiers and veterans’ stories, as well as share her own.
“I have a strong interest in positive psychology, so I was very interested to hear they were doing something like this,” Layton said. “I thought it was fantastic that they are using this with veterans, and myself being a veteran who has gone through combat situations and other things that are not so pleasant.”
“We’ve heard from the families and the soldiers themselves — this is a very powerful experience and these songs live beyond just the moment,” said Darden Smith, founder and creative director of SongwritingWith: Soldiers. The Austin-based singer-songwriter is known for such ’80s country and folk-influenced hits as “Little Maggie” and “Day After Tomorrow.”
The power of song
“That’s the beautiful thing about songs — with technology, people can carry around these songs on their phone. Other people in the military, they get it — they know what we’re doing, and they respect it.”
SongwritingWith: Soldiers was originally part of Smith’s SongwritingWith program, in which he worked with other individuals who had experienced traumatic events of some kind, including homeless youth and AIDS sufferers in Africa. He was inspired to work with soldiers after co-writing “Angel Flight,” with friend and fellow songwriter Radney Foster in 2008.
That year, Smith performed a concert for soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, near Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he met with Lt. Col. Fred Cale of the Marines. Later, back in Austin, Smith began spending time with the Texas Army National Guard, where he met Maj. Jim Nugent and learned about “angel flights” — the planes that bring soldiers who were killed in combat home.
“In the course of the conversation I was thinking about how songwriting could be an amazing thing — to sit down and write songs with soldiers, how it could be very healing for them,” Smith said. “Out of that conversation, Radney and I wrote ‘Angel Flight,’ and we started getting calls to come work with soldiers. I got a call from an organization who helps soldiers transition out of military life into civilian life — they asked me if I would write a theme song for them. I said, ‘I don’t know if I could do that very well, but I can come out and write songs with your soldiers.’”
The organization, Lifequest Transitions, took Smith up on his offer in 2010. At the time, it was just Smith talking to the soldiers one-on-one, and co-writing songs. The experience convinced him that he needed a team of songwriters to make the idea work.
Transition from trauma
“I’d had some previous experience writing songs with people who had been through trauma — working with homeless groups, doing some conflict resolution work,” Smith said. “But I wasn’t prepared for the depth of emotion; I wasn’t prepared for the stories that I was told by these soldiers — I’d had no context for it before in my life. That was the new part for me; it was the intensity and beauty and pain that was all there in these men and women. And that’s where I realized that this is too powerful for one person to do on their own.”
Mary Judd, a resident of Delmar for the past 13 years and a close friend of Smith’s since childhood, went with Smith on this trip. Afterwards, the two continued working with Lifequest Transitions, and began planning their own weekend retreat for soldiers. The first SongwritingWith: Soldiers retreat was held in Belton, Texas, close to Fort Hood, in October 2012, with a second retreat held in April of this year.
“It was something that really, once we saw what it could do, we couldn’t not do it,” Judd said. “It changed both of us; we gained so much insight. ... We learned so much, especially the reasons they serve and the struggles they have coming back.”
The Rensselaerville retreat was the third that SongwritingWith: Soldiers has put on, and is the second of three events planned this year.
“I think it was a matter of time, because I live here,” Judd said. “We knew we wanted to expand it, and we want to grow it slow because we really want to make sure we offer the best program.”
Participants in the retreats often return as volunteers, as was the case for A.J. Merrifield, a former Army staff sergeant who served in the Iraq War. Merrifield, who was in the Army nine years before being honorably discharged after multiple traumatic brain injuries (TBI) and a post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, is also the author of the military-themed web comic “BOB on the FOB” (“BOB” stands for “band of brothers”; “FOB” is “forward operating base”). He was a participant in the April SongwritingWith: Soldiers retreat, writing three songs, and served as a volunteer at the Rensselaerville retreat where he helped compose two more songs.
Enlightening... and heavy
“It’s both an incredibly lightening and cathartic experience because you’re getting all of these things off of your chest,” Merrifield said, “but at the same time it can be an incredibly heavy experience because it’s the first time for a lot of these veterans that they’ve really confronted their feelings about their experiences before. And then to sit there and to hear other soldiers’ experiences that echo and mirror so much of their own, suddenly you’re taking that in as well, and it’s like, ‘Oh my God.’ ”
On the songwriters’ side, Chapman experienced her first SongwritingWith: Soldiers retreat in Rensselaerville. She joined program veterans Smith and Grammy-award winning Gary Nicholson, as well as fellow newcomer Greg Trooper.
“I’ve been actually writing this book on creativity for about five years, and I’ve decided the best way to describe it is that it’s like oxygen — that it’s just there, and some people have a deeper lung capacity than others,” Chapman said, after breaking for lunch on the final day of the Rensselaerville retreat. “And sometimes they’ve been hit hard by something, they’re not breathing very deeply for a period of time. And this particularly has been — you can feel people’s breath changing.”
And then... performance
After lunch, Layton and Chapman had an hour left to finish their song before the final recording session in the auditorium of the Guggenheim Pavilion, where the four songwriters performed all the songs written during the retreat in front of the participants. With the clock ticking, the two brought Nicholson on board to help finish the song.
The recordings of the songs written at this retreat and the previous ones are available to purchase at the SongwritingWith: Soldiers website, www.songwritingwithsoldiers.org.
“This is a really emotional for me, too; it takes time to process it,” Layton said, shortly before hearing the finished song, “Waterfalls,” performed by both Nicholson and Chapman. “So far, just talking to other people with similar experiences, sometimes they have something to tell you that helps you. When I saw Stacy, she said some stuff to me that really touched me, in a different way, that means a lot.”
“There’s so many different experiences and so many different things that you go through that it’s — quite honestly it’s almost like every time you come, you get to the end of the weekend and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, and I wanted to talk about this and I didn’t get a chance to,’ and then, ‘Oh, I didn’t get to talk — because you have to work on this one,’ ” Merrifield said. “And even with that, you’ll start working with the songwriters, and you’ll start going through, and you’ll end up with two full songs and parts of seven others.”
Reach Gazette reporter Brian McElhiney at 395-3111 or firstname.lastname@example.org.