All photos by Sean Mathis/Spin
Active duty soldiers have to deal with some unimaginable experiences: confronting the death of their peers, facing violent encounters, contending with serious injuries, and living with the constant stress and fear of being in a combat zone.
Sometimes, these experiences can lead to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a severe anxiety disorder that can damage people's physical, sexual or psychological integrity.
There are a lot of therapies for PTSD, including standard psychological treatments and even a virtual reality system.
But this one works a little differently: it involves a guitar, some musicians, and a weekend of writing songs.
Darden Smith works with U.S. soldiers to turn their traumatic experiences into songs. There's a great article over at Spin about the program - if you have a few minutes, you should check it out.
Smith started the organization 'Songwriting With: Soldiers' along with two other professional songwriters, Radney Foster and Jay Clementi. The team mainly works with soldiers and other military personnel out of Fort Hood in Texas.
Over the course of one weekend session, they work with a group of soldiers and personnel who are suffering from PTSD or TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury).
Every participant in the program co-writes a song about their experiences in the course of the session, and they all go home with a CD of the songs to listen to at their leisure.
Other than their membership in the military, one thing all nine participants at a recent session had in common was their complete lack of songwriting experience.
Smith says that's actually a good thing: "It's really fascinating to write with people who don't know music, but have experienced som really powerful moment in their life.
"They speak about that trauma in a very simple way, and use common phrases, slang. That's a goldmine for songwriting. The naiveté is where the magic is."
And it sounds like the experience can surprise the participants: Scott McRae, a combat veteran who struggles with the symptoms of PTSD and who has never created a work of art in his life, found himself writing lyrics along with Smith.
After a breakthrough songwriting moment, when he came up with a new lyric, he expressed some surprise at the situation: "Those that know me would never believe I hung out with you artsy-fartsy guys."
The therapy is not considered a cure-all (and in fact, the military won't refer soldiers to Smith, since that would constitute an endorsement). And writing a song can't fix soldiers with PTSD or TBI.
But Rebecca Vaudreuil, a neurologic music therapist who runs a program for veterans and active-duty service members out of the Naval Centre in San Diego, says music genuinely helps.
"A lot of times people can sing about something they can't talk about," she says. "If it's going to be in a song, people can put into words things they wouldn't necessarily just say to someone."
And research has shown that songs can help the brain to heal.
"Music helps with neuroplasticity," Vaudreuil says. "So if there are damaged areas of the brain, music is more able to retroute neural pathways, as opposed to regular speech alone."
In the U.S. military, it's hard to get accurate statistics on how many soldiers suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The numbers are largely based on self-reporting, and a lot of soldiers are uncomfortable with admitting their symptoms to military doctors.
Still, estimates say that anywhere from five to 35 per cent of U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering from PTSD. When you consider that more than two million service members have been deployed to combat zones since 2001, even the lowest estimate is still a huge number.
PTSD is a serious problem among Canadian soldiers, as well. The Canadian Forces estimate that about 3,900 Afghanistan veterans (or about 13 per cent of the 30,000 deployed) will come home with some form of occupational stress injury (OSI), including PTSD and TBI.
And that number doesn't include active soldiers and veterans impacted by previous high-risk deployments, or those with symptoms that may manifest later.