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story.lead_photo.caption Navy veteran Edwin Brown (left) listens Saturday as Steve Dean plays the song Brown wrote during a retreat with Operation Song at the MacArthur Museum in Little Rock. - Photo by Thomas Metthe

Edwin Brown gets a hug from Estella Morris after she heard Brown’s song at Saturday’s Operation Song retreat.

Edwin Brown arrived at the MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History on Saturday with two poems.

Brown, a 58-year-old Navy veteran who has used writing to help heal from violence and trauma he has experienced, first presented a piece he had written called “We Stand Together,” about the camaraderie among soldiers.

Then he revealed something else he was working on, a far more personal account about dealing with the trauma of being sexually assaulted at age 19. As he slowly spoke about reliving the attack decades ago, songwriter Steve Dean began to strum his guitar.

Brown was one of six local veterans who attended Saturday’s Little Rock retreat with Operation Song, a Nashville, Tenn., nonprofit that helps current and former service members, as well as their families, tell their stories through song.

Dean, a Little Rock native who got involved with the organization about four years ago, said he wanted to help it expand to his hometown after seeing how cathartic the alternative form of therapy was for participants. Sometimes veterans would say things in sessions that they hadn’t told psychiatrists or even their spouses.

“When the guitar comes out, it kind of loosens you up a little bit,” Dean said.

The nonprofit holds weekly workshops in the middle Tennessee area and sponsors events and group retreats throughout the United States. Dean starts a session by encouraging the participants to jot down pieces of their experiences in spiral notebooks, or by asking what kind of music they like. Brown named R&B singer Patti LaBelle.

For years, Brown said, he told the story of seeing someone else getting assaulted, never admitting that it was him. Then he started to believe the lie, despite how the memory haunted him.

A verse began to come together:

For years I lived the lowest existence/victimizing myself/ self-loathing for allowing it to happen/telling people it was someone else.

Don Goodman, another songwriter, leaned across the table Saturday, counting out syllables for the next verse in Brown’s song. Then he urged Brown to dig into his ordeal, to go back to the nights he has screamed in his sleep.

“Continue the song,” he told Brown. “Why are you screaming? Tell me why.”

“I can’t fight back. Even in my dreams, I can’t fight back,” Brown answered.

I don’t hear me screaming in my sleep at night/even in my dreams when I’m attacked/I’m a wounded warrior trained to kill but couldn’t fight/I’m still 19 in my dreams at night.

Then came the chorus:

I am shaking as I write this/ because I’m living it all again/ I’ve heard women tell this story and it’s tragic/oh it’s tragic/but sometimes it happens to men/ me too.

“A lot of guys have told that story, but they don’t have the guts to make it their song,” Goodman said.

Photo by Thomas Metthe
Edwin Brown gets a hug from Estella Morris after she heard Brown’s song at Saturday’s Operation Song retreat.

At the same table, Carlos Cervantes, a 69-year-old Army veteran who served two tours in Vietnam, bent his head over his own spiral notebook and began to write. Cervantes said he often struggles to sleep but has seldom tried to face his memories and nightmares through writing.

“It still lingers,” he said of the anguish.

Brown’s song and the others from veterans at Saturday’s session were to be performed for the public in a concert that evening at the Holiday Inn Little Rock Airport Conference Center. Ward 4 City Director Capi Peck, who worked with Dean and Veterans Affairs Voluntary Services to put on the retreat, said she hopes to have Little Rock provide more sessions with local songwriters and veterans in the future.

The nonprofit has produced more than 600 songs since 2012. The hundreds of veterans and family members behind them range from Dean’s own father, a Navy veteran with a love for big-band style music, to a 9-year-old girl grieving for her father who was killed in action.

Brown said he wasn’t sure what form his song would take until he started talking, and once he started, he had to let it all come out. It was a “sink or swim” process, he said.

“I’ve been sinking, so it’s time to swim.”

Print Headline: Little Rock retreat helps veterans put life’s past traumas in words

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