A Universal Language

A Universal Language

Music helps soothe soldiers’ wounded hearts


When Austin, Texas, musician Dustin Welch performed his song “Sparrows,” written about returning Vietnam veterans, he started noticing a pattern. The song prompted veterans of all ages to approach him after a show, expressing interest in songwriting as a means of expressing their thoughts and feelings about their service.

Welch was so moved by the reaction that he created the nonprofit Soldier Songs and Voices in 2011 and started hosting weekly workshops. Today, the organization has five chapters across the United States, including one in Northwest Arkansas, and provides free instruments, lessons and songwriting workshops to veterans. Members of the organization are getting ready for the yearly Reveille Songwriting Retreat, held online this year due to covid-19 concerns. The retreat gives members an opportunity to work on their craft with a slate of established songwriters.

“I was fortunate enough to attend the Reveille Songwriting Retreat in Texas in 2018,” says Lee Haight, the Northwest Arkansas chapter president. “It was a magical week of these very accomplished musicians sharing their time, skills and love with a very diverse group of veterans. Many emotions were expressed and accepted that week, and many great songs resulted from everyone’s efforts. We are really privileged and honored to be able to help vets through music.”

Haight helped start the Northwest Arkansas chapter about five years ago at the prompting of University of Arkansas professor Lori Holyfield, who spearheaded the effort while she was researching a book she was writing about mental health issues veterans face after returning from conflicts.

“I am a Navy Vietnam Era veteran,” says Haight. “Although my service did not result in any trauma, I have known others, including family members, who have suffered greatly. I also know how music has very powerfully enhanced my life. So it was a natural decision to start a chapter.”

“Music brings back memories or creates new ones and can evoke emotions in even the most resistant of us,” says Soldier Songs and Voices president Lee Haight. “Music soothes the soul and helps us transcend our differences. It truly is a universal language.”
(Courtesy photo)

There is a large body of research that demonstrates the healing power of music, and Haight says he’s witnessed it himself.

“There is research out there on how music can change the brain, and my own experience has taught me the truth of that,” he says. “Music is the thread that runs throughout my life from childhood until the present. Music brings back memories or creates new ones and can evoke emotions in even the most resistant of us. Music soothes the soul and helps us transcend our differences. It truly is a universal language.

“It also can teach us self-discipline because it takes work and focus to learn an instrument,” he continues. “As for songwriting, many of the vets who engage with the mental health services at the VA use journaling as a therapeutic tool. We have had cases where that journaling can transform into a poem, then a song.”

Board member Keith Vire first got involved in Soldier Songs and Voices when his friend Haight asked him to repair one of the organization’s guitars. Soon, Vire, a songwriter and musician himself, was playing at the “coffee house” events the organization was regularly hosting at the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks medical center in Fayetteville. He says his own life experiences drew him to the project, as well.

“I am a Vietnam veteran but, having served on an aircraft carrier just off the coast of Vietnam, I didn’t see the same kind of action that many of my fellow veterans did,” says Vire. “I kind of feel that I owe something to those who were really in the trenches and who suffer upon their return.”

As the former CEO of the Arkansas Support Network — he retired in 2017 after 27 years with the organization — Vire knows a little bit about helping people.

“I always knew, at least intuitively, that music has healing powers,” he says. “On the SSV website, we have this statement: ‘The act of learning an instrument and the art of songwriting have been proven to rebuild damaged synaptic pathways from traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress. We are committed to providing veterans with tools to turn their stories into songs so that their voices can be heard.’ Honestly, I have never done the research on this, but I have seen the changes that it brings to the veterans we support, and I’m convinced that there is a strong connection. We have had veterans tell us that playing and learning guitar has changed their lives, and some even talk about how it diverted them from thoughts of self-harm, so I am a believer.

“If we can provide a free guitar — we accept donations of instruments, and if they need repair, we make that happen — and some regular lessons, and if that helps a veteran deal with PTSD, I think it’s one of the most important things that I can do at this point in my life,” Vire says.

The organization welcomes all veterans, regardless of skill level.

“We primarily provide free guitar and songwriting lessons for vets as well as an instrument if they need one,” says Haight. “For beginners, we simply want them to be able to play a song well enough to please themselves. They quickly find out that if you can play one song, there are a thousand more they can play as well. Pre-covid, we spent a lot of time together playing, teaching and learning at the VA. Our goal was for a vet to become confident and proficient enough to sit in the circle with us and play along. The VA has been a wonderful partner for our chapter, and we miss the interaction with vets, families and VA employees that we had on the hospital campus. If a vet comes to us with some skills, then we quickly bring them on as mentors for the beginners and as advisory members for our board of directors. At present, we have four students we are working with through Zoom.”

Both Haight and Vire say they have no doubt the organization is making positive changes in the lives of area vets; they’ve both seen the evidence.

“We have vets who have told us that the music SSV brought into their lives literally saved them,” says Haight. “Their families and loved ones see the changes in the vets, also.”

“We have one veteran that we work with who lives in Oklahoma,” says Vire. “There is no SSV chapter where he lives, so he has joined our group. Last year, he spent a long time in a coma and lost lots of his physical capacities. He relies on oxygen every day and was really down when he hooked up with our group. He had played professionally many years ago, but had really given up on ever playing again and was severely depressed.

“Since he started working with SSVNWA, he has really improved his playing dramatically and is writing songs again. He says that getting back into playing and having our group to play and write with have totally changed his outlook and his life. I love that. To me, that’s what SSV is all about.”


Soldier Songs and Voices

Reveille Songwriting Retreat

WHEN — Through Oct. 30

WHERE — soldiersongsandvoices.com

COST — Free

INFO — soldiersongsandvoices.com

FYI — Find information about the local chapter at soldiersongsandvoicesnwa.com.

Categories: Music