Songwriting camp helps veterans transition from active duty to civilian life

For five days this week, ten veterans selected to represent the range of issues that come with their careers will tell their stories to four professional songwriters chosen to promote the strengths that come with theirs. During that time, the two groups will combine forces on a musical experiment. The goal of their songwriting camp is both symbolic and practical: Teach a small crew of veterans how to express their experience in song, and hope many more will do so in real life.

This is the experiment's second year. Founded by LifeQuest Transitions, a Colorado Springs nonprofit devoted to easing veterans from active duty back into their civilian lives, the camp began as a way for the group to reach a wider array of veterans than the 1,400 who have come through LifeQuest's doors in the past two years. Approximately 95 percent of its clientele is active duty military personnel, and founder C.W. Conner says that number includes a high volume of emotional and psychological issues that have yet to be explored.

"We're more at war now than we have been in modern history," Conner says in describing the mindset of many of his clients. "We used to be able to see our enemy, and today we don't. They could be around the corner, and they could be looking at us from space. That kind of repeated stress is very corrosive to them."

Click to watch video footage from last year's veterans songwriting camp:

The songwriting camp's ultimate purpose is to prove, though the drama of song, that it's both culturally acceptable and personally beneficial to discuss military-related issues like post-traumatic stress disorder. One real-world example Conner cites is that of a former army ranger named John who is now a local attorney raising a son. He's had serious re-integration issues because of the mentality that came with his past position.

"The problem is that he is always in trouble with the law because he's hardwired and has developed his own rules," Conner says. "John is an American hero, Purple Heart, who is going to tell the story for his son. He is going to sit in jail for a while before this is over, though."

To that end, Conner and the camp's other organizers searched through LifeQuest's sister organizations to find the widest array of military experiences (and internal difficulties) as they could. Their hope was to represent a generous swath of military life in order to make the songs that result as relatable as possible. The camp, funded by LifeQuest, is free for all involved.

Over the next five days, the ten selected veterans will work with four songwriters (a larger group than last year's) to put their stories into verse and then music. After the initial meet-and-greet, the only instance all members of the project will be together are meal times: Veterans are given absolute freedom to pursue their songs in whatever way they'd like.

"We provide an environment and opportunity for them to engage," Conner says. "It's not scripted. They decide how they want to speak about their lives and what they want to tell their community."

The camp's first-ever finished song came out of a discussion over breakfast. A photojournalist who had covered the war remembered the loss of her video partner during a gunfight, and she confessed to the gathering a worry that her faith might have been diminished. Five minutes later, one of the songwriters picked up his guitar. What resulted was the song "God Challenged Me."

Other than awareness, the ulitmate result of the project will be a twelve-song CD sold to generate funds for LifeQuest. (The veterans and songwriters, registered as authors, will also earn money from the sale, though significantly less.) Of the ten songs completed last year, six made the final cut, and all of them are available on iTunes in an EP called Faces of Freedom. This year, six more will be added to the total before the group's full-length compilation album is released in April.

"What's the universal language if not music?" Conner asks. "Last year, the awareness part was certainly delivered, but second to that, we had no idea how emotional the experience would be for these people. It created a bonding experience, and it's going to be just as powerful this time."

In the meantime, followers can track the progress of the camp and its song's via LifeQuest Transitions' Facebook page.

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