Written by Jake Lowary   |  The Tennessean

Deep in the rolling hills of Middle Tennessee, on land owned by two of country and gospel music’s most-acclaimed stars, is one of the most recent examples of how American veterans are taking control of their battle against their own demons.

Michael Smith, Danny Williams and Howard Spier are among the dozen gathered here on an unusually hot, early October day. Each are veterans who have fought for their country, but are now using music to overcome the stress they brought home from war.

With them on Amy Grant and Vince Gill’s secluded farm in Williamson County are songwriters associated with some of the biggest country hits, like Bob Regan, who are helping the veterans write the latest versions of country songs to help them cope and move beyond their struggles.

They stayed here for a few days, fully immersing themselves in the experience organized by Challenge America, which supports extending arts programs to under-served communities.


Regan, Steve Dean and Don Goodman started Operation Song, a music therapy program similar to Challenge America, that has been featured on the “Today” show and has drawn the support drawn support of stars like Grant and Gill.

Programs like Operation Song and Challenge America are just two of several emerging to help veterans cope with their struggles with conditions like post-traumatic stress and chronic pain and even suicide while also breaking from traditional treatment regimens associated with modern medicine.

They’ve also begun to curry favor from doctors and large organizations that just a few years ago were skeptical of the ideas.

Music therapy isn’t really a secret, but it’s one of a litany of new treatment programs like meditation breathing, medical marijuana and cannabinoid oil, that are attracting attention and support that just a few years ago would have been cast aside.

Grant was there that day in October, herself passing out vials of CBD oil, telling each veteran she only wants to know — yes or no — did it help them. It’s another bit of evidence that preferred treatments are rapidly shifting away from tradition.

No science. No formal research. Just up or down, yea or nay, did the oil extracted from cannabis plants — shown to relieve pain, anxiety and even epilepsy — work.

Veterans, still conflicted, see a bright future

Spier speaks with a raspy voice and is fidgety, both potential side effects from the fentanyl patch he wears on his shoulder, constantly, like a tattoo. He’s managed to reduce the dosage through careful management with his doctors at the Murfreesboro VA hospital, but also with music.

“My wife tells me I’m so much better…how much it’s done for me,” he said.

At one time, he was so heavily medicated, even driving was impossible. Now, it’s different.

“I exceed my expectations so many times,” he says.

Spier crafted his newest song under the overhang of a barn. It had yet to be titled but addressed years of misery and the fallout from two major injuries to his back, one from an explosion when he was 19 in the Navy, and one from a horrible bus crash decades later.

And acceptance of it all.

“I’ve come to some understandings, that this is the way it is and I have to make the best of it,” Spier says, who used to cry when he watched from the porch of his Pegram home when his wife mowed the lawn.

Nearby, Williams, 35, a Marine veteran, rolls a Camel cigarette between his teeth and lips. His lyrics, like Spier’s, paint a picture of despair, seclusion and withdrawal.

He’s opposed to “big pharma” and traditional treatments grounded in medicated therapy and established practice. He says there’s too much focus on symptoms, and not enough attention on root causes.

“Do I really want to take something that’s going to make me not feel,” he asks, rhetorically. “Not feeling sounds atrocious to me. If you don’t pony up to whatever emotional state you’re in you’ll never get past it.”

Across the way, Smith raises his chin to the sunshine. It’s something Smith says he’s only recently been able to do. Spier and Williams also pointed to Smith as singular case where this therapy rooted in sound and creative impulse has shown promise.

“I would go weeks at a time without even leaving my house. Sometimes I wouldn’t even leave the bedroom,” Smith said. It was a self-induced seclusion that spanned three decades, he said.

Smith joined the Army at the tail end of Vietnam and then spent 25 years as a police officer. In that time, he battled intense depression and was on the verge of suicide. He fought substance abuse. The latter he was able to overcome on his own, he said.

But the music therapy helped immediately, though he says he’s still “a long way from better.”

“It was writing. It was a way to express yourself without expressing a lot of the details,” he said.

What’s the science behind it?

Resistance to traditional treatments and conditions like post-traumatic stress have both become increasingly common, especially in the veteran community.

The prevalence of the two have both grown as thousands of new veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan, and methods have more clearly illustrated the effects of repeated deployments and witnessing the horror of war.

“I see a new ‘yoga for vets’ group crop up every day…and it’s so heartening to see,” said Leslye Moore, national director for Project Welcome Home Troops, which promotes a breathing meditation program for veterans.

Treatments range from controlled breathing and meditation, to music therapy, to equine and nature therapy, to CBD and medical marijuana.

Grant is among an expanding group of high-profile adopters of the alternative approach as well.

“Many of my military and veteran patients have benefited from learning meditation and mindfulness interventions, often claiming it’s one of the go-to tools they use to counter stress and regulate mood,” said Dr. Michael Valdovinos, a psychiatrist who recently became known for helping Sgt. Bowe Berghdal, a soldier held captive by the Taliban for five years and who pleaded guilty to abandoning his post in Afghanistan, with his reintegration into society.

Valdovinos said there’s evidence such tactics can improve brain structure and function. He developed a meditation app for smartphones with National Geographic, “Bravo Tango Bravo Training,” which was inspired by a documentary.

He’s among a community of medical practitioners who have also begun to notice a changing direction in the overall conversation, though most acknowledge there’s still a significant amount of resistance to techniques that lack heaps of studies and data that assert their value.

Moore said skepticism was common with the VA and other large groups, but that has shifted.

“It felt like an act of futility to reach out to VA hospitals,” Moore said. “I now have VA’s calling us and saying we want your program.”

She said VA doctors have changed their minds after seeing stark changes, even with the most at-risk patients.

The practices have also drawn the attention of doctors like Irving Dardik, known for his theories about waves, in physical form and in human condition, which he used to hone the training of Olympians.

He’s now bringing a similar approach to treating conditions like PTSD, sleep problems and other common disorders in veterans.

“I’m looking at it from a more universal approach,” he said.

Moore said the future is bright, and attitudes continue to shift toward acceptance. In New York, she said, the state’s veterans services office has put “90 percent” of the focus on treating veterans by alternative treatments, which she calls “integrative health.”

“(Veterans are) really seeking something different,” Moore said.


Source: The Tennessean