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Operation Song transforms vets’ stories into healing tunes

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Van Booth tuned in the Grand Ole Opry on Memorial Day 2017, expecting to hear something patriotic from Charlie Daniels. But he heard something else — the story of fellow veterans, transformed into song by Grammy-winning artists and musicians.

Daniels had donated his time slot that day to Operation Song, a program that uses the power of music as a form of deeply personal outreach to veterans, or their surviving children and spouses.

“They were word-for-word my experience,” said Booth, a retired U.S. Army staff sergeant and infantryman.

“ … I was in a rough spot before. I had contemplated suicide. I scouted out railroad tracks. … But I had the Opry on and that’s when I heard. When I say Operation Song saved my life, that’s what I mean.”

Operation Song pairs veterans with songwriters and musicians, through both courses and more intimate, intense, one-on-one retreats. By sitting down and talking, the artists get to the heart of the veteran’s story, which they then use to write and produce a unique song. Soon, after a July retreat, the stories of Montrose-area veterans will join those already being told through Operation Song.

“The story actually starts coming out of the veteran and, sometimes, they don’t even realize what they’re telling,” Bobbi Allison Standifer, director of Operation Song’s Chattanooga program, said Friday, when she and Grammy-winning songwriter Steve Dean came to Montrose for on-the-ground retreat planning. “After pages and pages of listening to their story, a certain thread of an idea is coming for the song; it’s the main theme. They’re often surprised by it.”

For Booth, of Tennessee, Operation Song took him from the edge and, five years after the loss, to the grave of his fallen comrade, Channing “Bo” Hicks — a visit that put him in touch with Hicks’ family. Operation Song also helped memorialize Hicks, the “skinny redhead from South Carolina.” It helped Booth avoid what another veteran termed “sui-silence,” and it’s now taking him on a literal journey, through Montrose, as he walks U.S. 50 to raise funds and awareness for the program.

War is hell. Music is hope.

More than a song

Operation Song launched in 2012, the vision of award-winning songwriters Don Goodman and Bob Regan.

Dean, with nine No. 1 songs under his belt and a multitude of other honors, came to Montrose at the invitation of his friend, local psychiatrist Dr. David Good.

“They’ve had all this PTSD, especially Vietnam-era (veterans) and they have kept all that pushed down in their soul. To get that released, to get it out of their system and onto a piece of paper, and turn that into a song, it’s been very therapeutic,” Dean said.

He and Allison Standifer both used the word “magic” to describe what happens through Operation Song.

“Steve is known as Beethoven. He can come up with a melody. … Don Goodman is known as Shakespeare, because he’s a really good lyricist,” Allison Standifer said.

“It’s like magic. The lyrics and melody come together in a song. It does something to the veteran. It’s like freeing them.”

The veterans she’s worked with have a unifying experience, regardless what conflict in which they served, she said.

“They all understand what they’ve been through. There’s a common thread among them; they become like family. They’ve got that support. … They’ve kept this in because they think they’re the only one that’s felt this. But when they hear these songs (on radio), we’ve had ppl call in and say ‘That’s (also) my story,” Allison Standifer said.

Dean said the Operation Song process is a mix of creative writing and music therapy, involving a team of artists. Each veteran selects the person he or she wants to work with, during an evening social. The next morning, they get to work, producing a song and a concert by nighttime.

“The songs we perform that night did not exist at 9 in the morning. So they’re brand-new. It is magic,” Dean said.

There was a time when Operation Song was brand-new to him, too — and the accomplished artist was nervous about meeting a room of veterans who, after all, had served in a war he was just a few years to young to enter: Vietnam. The ice-breaker came when one of the vets, “Jerry,” volunteered his poetry, but only if Goodman read it on his own.

Then, his story emerged.

Deployed to Vietnam at age 19, “he thought he was going to be John Wayne or something,” as Dean recounted. But that changed quickly, when he saw the wounded and battered coming off the field.

“He said at that moment, ‘I created the old Jerry in my mind. Because I knew if I got out of here, I knew who I was going to be.’ One of the lines that gets me the most out of his song is, ‘Sometimes, young Jerry turns out the light/while old Jerry lies awake all night.’”

No matter when they served, the veterans’ memories persist over decades. Program participants, if asked when they were in Vietnam, Afghanistan or Iraq, often say the same thing: “Last night,” per Dean and Allison Standifer.

“It’s the same story, different war, but each one has their individual scars,” Allison Standifer said.

“We’re a voice, a window, a door,” she said earlier. “We’re an opening for them to take that first step out.”

Good invited Dean and the other artists here in coordination with Welcome Home Alliance for Veterans, the local nonprofit that operates the Warrior Resource Center. He will host the evening social for the local retreat at his home; the retreat itself takes place in private at the Warrior Resource Center, with concert to follow at The Bridges on July 17, for all veterans and the public. (Entry will likely be by a suggested donation amount.) The concert date coincides with the beginning of Welcome Home’s No Barriers Week in Montrose — and Welcome Home also hopes to make Operation Song an annual event here. (See related info to help with fundraising.)

“With the new veterans coming in, I am planning on doing a lot of Operation Song songs that night for their benefit. I want them to hear it,” Dean said.

“The songs that are written, it’s certainly toward that veteran, yet there are many veterans that will identify with what they’re hearing, because they’ve been there,” Good said.

“From my view as a psychiatrist, music therapy is another avenue to the unconscious. Sometimes with talk therapy, I can talk until I turn blue in the face and I cant get around the psychological defenses. With the music, it’s like the music opens the door by going in the back door, and there they are … sharing.”

Operation Song reached Booth in a way some therapy methods could not. He spoke of “exposure therapy” that would have made him relive his trauma over and over. Booth instead turned to individual therapy, then progressed to a group setting after about a year — it took that much just to get him to a point where he could even contemplate reaching out to Operation Song.

“I’m happiest when I’m around other veterans, but it’s a whole different ballgame when I’m around other infantry guys. We had to close in and kill. That was our job. … If they shoot at you, you have to run toward the bullets,” he said.

Then came Memorial Day 2017. Although profoundly affected by what he heard on the radio, it took Booth until that August to summon the courage and attend an Operation Song showcase in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He slipped into the venue, hat brim pulled low, trying to keep a low profile. But Regan and Goodman knew instantly he was a veteran. They invited him to a retreat.

Once he agreed to participate, Booth wasn’t sure what to say, or how the session would go. He brought along his journals for reference, but never even had to open them.

“It just came out; ‘Tell me about Bo’; somebody’s asking about my best friend,” he said.

The session took him on the road toward healing. It took him back to Bo.

‘My Brother Bo’

Booth’s memories of Hicks weren’t just of a skinny kid with ginger hair, who liked cherries in his moonshine. They were of a man, who only in his 20s already had a marriage and children when he re-upped in the military and deployed to Afghanistan for what would be the last time. The memories were of the final words Booth ever communicated to Hicks: “Keep yourself safe over there.”

Booth wanted his song to do his friend justice, as well as not offend Hicks’ family, whom he did not know. He and the songwriting team took care in crafting “My Brother Bo.”

By Nov. 16, 2017, the fifth anniversary of Hicks’ death, Booth was finally mentally prepared to visit his friend’s grave.

“Doing that song gave me the courage to finally drive out to South Carolina,” Booth said.

He drove through the night, arriving at the grave at sunrise. He brought along a chair and beer, intending to slowly drink it through the day, which he would spend at Hicks’ graveside “so he wouldn’t be alone.”

But soon into his vigil, another man appeared. Booth did a double-take when he saw an older version of his friend — “like a ghost,” he said.

The man was in fact Hicks’ uncle, Dennis Pepper, also a veteran, who was paying his own respects. The two talked for hours.

“I said I just did this song, you should listen to it,” Booth said. Pepper kept talking about other things, but before he left, offered Booth a visit with Hicks’ grandmother, who had raised his friend.

While waiting for Pepper to text him the woman’s address, Booth decided to text Pepper the lyrics. He heard nothing — “I thought I blew it,” he said.

But Pepper did send him the address and greeted booth when he arrived at the home of Hicks’ grandmother, Mimi. His reference to Bo’s cherry moonshine made it clear he’d read the lyrics, still, he did not ask to hear the song.

“I thought, I’m not bringing up that song no more,” Booth said.

But as Pepper left Booth and Mimi alone, he made a passing reference to the song. Mimi took Booth’s phone. She listened to the words:

“When you draw fire, run fast/ you never know which day’s your last. … Stay strong, stay true/don’t forget your infantry blue/ He was one of the bravest boys I’ll ever know — my brother Bo.”

Booth said: “She shut her eyes. She (said) ‘My Bo, my Bo.”

Mimi lived a few months after Booth sent her an Operation Song CD with “My Brother Bo” as the first track.

“The thing about listening to these songs is, it’s different than just listening to music. This is the real deal. This is what really happened. You’ve got to remember that,” Good said.

“In Nashville, we make up the stories and hope that some artist can relate to it,” Dean said. “But when they’re doing it with the veterans, they’re real stories. They’re telling the truth.”

Katharhynn Heidelberg is the Montrose Daily Press assistant editor and senior writer. Follow her on Twitter, @kathMDP.


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