Oscar Alvarez, an Army veteran, grinned and nodded his head Saturday as Bob Regan, a Grammy- and Dove Award-nominated songwriter, performed Oscar’s song “Adapt and Overcome.”
Saturday’s jam session – part of Operation Song – pairs professional songwriters with veterans, active-duty military and their Families, to help them tell their stories through song. In conjunction with the USO, Operation Song hosted a songwriting workshop and jam session.
Although Operation Song is not a USO program, Pamela Holz, center operations and program manager for USO Fort Campbell and USO Nashville, said the two joined forces because they both have a mutual interest in serving the military community. Participants do not need any previous musical or songwriting experience to join Operation Song.
“Bob can work with anybody and get a song out of them,” Holz said. “It doesn’t really matter what kind of song it is – country, rock, rap, jazz – whatever is inside the service member, they can talk about it and work through it. It’s a great therapy opportunity especially for people who maybe aren’t very good at expressing their emotions in other ways, to be able to put their thoughts into a song is a way to get those thoughts out of their head and help them feel better.”
During the jam session, Bob strummed his acoustic guitar and read freshly written lyrics off of his laptop while performing to a room full of people. Oscar’s wife, Barbara, a medically-retired veteran, dabbed her tears away and reached for Oscar’s hands as she listened.
“Music just really gets to me,” Barbara said. “When Oscar and I got together, it was right in the middle of everything that was going on with him. I remember the man he was and how hard the journey has been for him. I’m proud of him for being able to say it and talk about it.”
Oscar, Bob and the USO’s featured musician of the month, Ray Ligon, worked together on the song for part of the afternoon. Oscar’s song was inspired by a phrase from his days serving in a brigade engineer battalion. He also drew from his experience of leaving the Army in 2006.
“Transitioning out of active-duty was really hard, because I had all of these skills and everyone wanted to hire me, but I was overqualified,” Oscar said. “It was hard for me to get a job at first because of the recalls [because of the surge in Iran]. Employers saw me as a potential hire, but they didn’t want to hold a job so it was easier to deny me.”
Oscar was hesitant to attend the event at first, but his wife encouraged him.
“I just didn’t feel like I was mentally ready to have my thoughts put into a song,” he said. “It was pretty awesome to hear someone perform my song for the first time though. It was more storytelling at first and [Regan] helped bring out the key points that really made the song whole.”
Singing their stories
Since Bob founded Operation Song about five years ago, songwriters have written more than 500 songs in collaboration with service members and their Families. Operation Song songwriters have worked with everyone from World War II veterans to Gold Star children, Bob said.
The idea for Operation Song came to Bob while he was touring military installations with a songwriters’ band doing armed forces entertainment tours.
“These people were serving in the military and some were far from home, some just had stories to tell. And songwriting, by its nature is kind of a way to put the pieces of a story into place,” Bob said. “A lot of people feel like they can’t write a song, or they don’t have a song in them, but they don’t have to. They just have to tell us their story. That’s why it works.”
Operation Song offers eight- to 10-week workshops with small groups.
“We all sit around the table and everyone tells their stories and what they think they might want to write about. Over those eight weeks the songs evolve and they bounce around,” Bob said. “We also give homework to do. The participants tell the stories and the songwriters are there to help them make it make sense.”
The organization also hosts one-day retreats. During a retreat, each participant pairs up with a songwriter and at the end of the day they have a finished song, Regan said.
Operation Song’s mission is to empower veterans and active-duty Soldiers to tell their stories. Although writing thoughts down is helpful, Regan said adding music to a story can make all the difference.
“When you put music to [your thoughts] it just hits you at a different level,” Bob said. “Many times someone will just be talking to me and I will hear them say something and I will say ‘wait, say that again’ and I will play some chords under it and suddenly they are taken aback, because it has a whole different power and emotion when you try to find the music that matches the sentiment.”
The organization’s goal is to establish themselves as a unique and viable treatment option, using creative and integrative therapies to help individuals recover from the stress of war and improve the quality of their lives.
“If your thoughts are kind of scattered from trauma, an injury or distress, it is sometimes hard to put the pieces in the proper places and to keep things in perspective,” Bob said. “By the nature of songwriting, you break the story down into components. Here’s the big idea – What do you want to say? What do you want people to know about you? What did you go through? – You are able to put a jumble of experiences into a three-and-a-half-minute narrative arc that makes sense.”
All of the songwriters who help with Operation Song are accomplished and qualified for the task, Regan said. Four songwriters – Bob, Ray, David Kent and Rusty Tabor – participated in Saturday’s workshop. Many songwriters have said they enjoyed the experience.
“It’s nice to be able to use your skill set for something that really matters, not just trying to make up something that you hope will get on the radio,” Bob said. “We know that we can touch at least one person by doing this and maybe if we get really lucky we will write a song that touches a whole lot of other people too.”
Over the years, Bob has found that his favorite part of Operation Song is “seeing somebody light up when they hear their song for the first time.”
“They know that it really is their story,” he said. “We always use their words and we don’t stop until their story is done. That’s incredibly gratifying.”
Private Matt Hill, 426th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division, paired up with David for a one-on-one writing session during the workshop. Matt, who said he is the biggest country music fan, is writing “That’s What He Said” inspired by his father’s words of wisdom. Matt’s father is a veteran of the Vietnam War.
Matt said he signed up for the workshop minutes after finding the flier at Fort Campbell’s USO.
“It was crazy to be working with [David] one-on-one,” he said. “I never would have thought that I would have a professional helping me write a song about a story I want to get out. Having them take their time … especially considering the stars they’ve worked with … taking their time to be here with us is just beyond me. I am honored and excited to be a part of this.”
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