On a cloudy Saturday morning in February, participants in the Little Rock chapter of Operation Song's winter retreat gather for breakfast before getting down to the business of storytelling and songwriting.
These retreats are a creative catharsis, some may even say a lifesaver, for many veterans who have suffered injuries and illness, physical or mental. Those who have kept their grief, trauma and pain bottled up inside or tried to numb it in self-destructive ways. Those who feel they have nowhere to go, no one to talk to, no one who'd really understand.
Based in Nashville, Tenn., the 7-year-old Operation Song has as its mission "to empower veterans, active duty military, and their families to tell their stories through the process of songwriting." The organization has welcomed those who've served in war and peace, "bringing them back one song at a time," as its motto says. This is the second retreat in the state; Little Rock became an official chapter in January.
A group of Arkansas veterans are collaborating with several acoustic guitar-toting, Nashville-based songwriters at the retreat, held at the Eugene J. Towbin Healthcare Center (aka Fort Roots) in North Little Rock. The veterans tell their stories, which are turned into songs that become part of each veteran's healing process.
One by one, the men and women introduce themselves. Most of the vets are Army. Three are Navy. One is a Marine.
Eric Wooley, an Army veteran and volunteer at the Towbin Center, tells of how impressed his daughter, who'd come to the meet-and-greet the night before, was with Operation Song. "She understands that we need healing," he says. "And she understands what the mission's about. It just blew her mind. It blew my mind."
The songwriters introduced themselves: Wood Newton, originally from Hampton, Ark., and Steve Dean, a Little Rock native. There's Bob Regan, Operation Song's founder. There's Billy Montana, Wil Nance, Bobby Tomberlin and Don Goodman.
The recording artists who have sung their songs include Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, George Strait, Blake Shelton, Kenny Rogers, Keith Urban, Alabama.
Newton co-wrote "Twenty Years Ago," a 1986 Rogers hit about a soldier who didn't return from Vietnam. "It took about six years after we wrote that great song for it to get cut because nobody wanted to hear anything about Vietnam for a long time," he says. Newton also teamed with Thom Shepherd to co-write David Ball's hit "Riding With Private Malone," about a deceased Vietnam soldier whose note is discovered in the glove compartment by the recently discharged veteran who'd bought Malone's 1966 Corvette.
"Riding With Private Malone" got the wheels of Operation Song turning, says Regan, who has performed on armed-forces entertainment tours at military bases.
'SIT, START TALKING'
"We're storytellers," Regan says. "If Wood and I are going to co-write a song, we'll sit and we'll start talking -- 'What's going on in your life?' If it's something good and happy, we'll write that. If it's something bad that happened, you're trying to process it or write a song for somebody. That's just kind of how we ... tell our stories and make them make sense. So the thought was, maybe that would work with veterans too ... I went to the [Veterans Administration] and said 'Let's give it a try.'" That was six and a half years and, Regan says, 700 songs ago.
How does it work?
First, veteran and songwriter pair up and move to a more private space. The songwriter does not start by asking about the veteran's time in the service, Regan says. He asks the veteran to talk about where he came from, where he grew up.
"If you just ask people questions, they'll start talking. ... If you get people talking, they'll always get around to what's important to them. Songwriters are really good at finding a thread of a story. Once they say a couple of things, and you say ... 'What about this,' you sing their own words back to them and make them rhyme. Then it's on. It's like a skeleton key, you can open people up."
Regan sees this process as taking the things that are jumbled in the mind of a traumatized vet and helping him put it in perspective. Writing the experience down creates a narrative; giving it a melody and making it into a 3-minute song helps it make sense.
Operation Song has worked with veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. They've worked with Gold Star families and military spouses and with veterans at military trauma retreats. "Everybody loves it," says Dean, who suggested the operation be brought to Little Rock.
The songwriters travel to other places such as New York, Atlanta and Pensacola, Fla. The organization posts many of the songs on its SoundCloud page.
TWO BY TWO
Newton has teamed with a veteran whose last name also is Newton -- William Donald "Don" Newton, 74, of North Little Rock, a biologist and Vietnam veteran. He is also a volunteer at the Towbin center.
Songwriter Newton finds himself without paper and hastily borrows a few sheets from a visitor. He needs them: The friendly, easygoing veteran Newton is a detailed storyteller.
The veteran says he'd been told several months earlier about Operation Song. "And I didn't really want to do it" at first. Thinking about his time in Vietnam "brings up hurts."
The divorced father of a grown son and daughter, veteran Newton was in graduate school at the University of North Carolina, working on his doctorate. He was struggling, unsure of his career path. He discovered his old Reserved Officers Training Corps cadet platoon sergeant was killed in Vietnam. "And I quite honestly wondered what the hell I was doing [in graduate school]." Commissioned as a second lieutenant, Newton had been automatically promoted to first lieutenant in grad school -- which he considered a "living hell." So he decided to "take a break" and go active-duty Army.
"Take a break from school," songwriter Newton mulls, taking notes.
As a chemical officer, William Newton was assigned to the former Fort Lawton in Seattle, where he advised reserve-unit commanders and wrote reports of their monthly activities. This was the home of the U.S. Army Base Hospital No. 50, which saw many soldiers returning from Vietnam.
He remembers one first lieutenant -- "a fellow who was as crazy as a bed bug. He was whacked out."
"Hold on," the songwriter says, repeating, "Crazy as a bed bug ... "
" ... And whacked out," the veteran repeats.
'THEY HAD NO CLUE'
William Newton now knows the man had post traumatic stress disorder. "They had no clue back then," he says. "In the old days, they called it shell shock ... In World War II and Korea, it was the thousand-yard stare."
When he was assigned to Vietnam, William Newton was razzed by his military comrades. "You're coming home in a body bag, doo dah, doo dah ..." he sings, then laughs.
"Was that something they actually sang?" the songwriter asks.
"Yep," William Newton answers. "We're crazy that way ... In order to be a solider, in order to be in a combat zone, you've got to have that little strange sense of humor."
He tells of getting his orders to report to the 26th Infantry Division; those orders were later canceled. "It was kind of embarrassing to me because to be quite honest, I wanted to go."
A month or so later, William Newton called the chemical warfare department at the Pentagon and volunteered to go to Vietnam.
His parents took him to the Las Vegas Airport, from which he had to leave. "I'll never forget walking in there and there's a line of one-armed bandits -- "
Wood Newton pauses, momentarily puzzled.
"Slot machines," William Newton says.
His dad asked him for a dime. He refused, but his mom didn't. His father fed the dime into the slot machine and William Newton found himself with a hat full of dimes -- enough to pay for his parents' trip to Las Vegas and back to their Barstow, Calif., home.
"Can I have more paper?" Wood Newton asks. "Unbelievable. Oh, my God. This is so easy. We're going to have to write a whole album."
The songwriter tries a line. "You might be lucky if you spend one dime in the slots ..."
William Newton was sent to Vietnam in January 1971 and moved to Da Nang in April. He talks about an explosion at the nearby Monkey Mountain Facility, an Air Force and Marine base. Eight soldiers were the last men seen on the truck that exploded. "They were completely atomized ... and that's haunted me for years." He says the men could not officially be listed as dead.
"And there are people right now who are convinced that their eight loved ones are still alive."
It was this experience that led William Newton to seek help: He overheard three couples in a local restaurant in January 2015 talking about the eight soldiers. Two men in the party got into an argument about the soldiers' status.
"At that time the whole room got black. Just darkened." William Newton had an overwhelming urge to jump up and tell them to stop thinking the men were missing; that they were dead. After that, William realized he needed help. He was connected with a social worker, then with a doctor.
A TOUGH LOSS
But William Newton's main story comes next. It's about Donald Lynn Delaplaine, a warrant officer and a friend whose helicopter was shot down. He remembers seeing Delaplaine the morning of June 28, 1971, having breakfast. It was the first he'd seen of him in awhile.
"He was so much like my little brother Jim; the same spirit, same outlook. ... We could read one another's minds." The men talked about what they were going to do when they left Vietnam. They said they'd see each other that night.
William Newton breaks down when telling about the phone call that came in later that day, informing him that the helicopter had been shot down. Delaplaine had spotted a badly injured Vietnamese woman and child on the ground. "Being the American that he was and being the Americans that we are, he went to the rescue and the VC-NVA [Viet Cong and Northern Vietnamese Army] blew him out of the sky.
"It hit home. And it continued to hit home for me. ... This hurt me to the core." He went numb. He thanked the man who brought the news, and went back to work.
On July 3, 1971, an order came down from a general not to explode any fireworks on July 4. Two days later, William Newton saw bright artillery flares coming from the south. He thought about his friend and, for every year thereafter, avoided fireworks displays. He left active duty in August 1971 and was in the reserves some 19 years.
But his experiences continued to haunt him.
"My friends noticed that I had changed. I got quiet about a lot of things ... They were worried about me," When he did talk, "my vocabulary had changed," he adds. He cursed a lot.
Fifteen years after Dela-plaine's death -- Independence Day 1986 -- Newton heard fireworks and finally broke down and cried for his friend. On another friend's urging to go and photograph some fireworks, he did. He remembers saying, "'This is for you, Don.' And I started shooting like mad."
The songwriter begins strumming his guitar again, playing around with words as he sings. "I didn't want to talk about it, 'cause the pain that it brings up ... "
The veteran tells more stories. "I'm gonna drive him crazy," he says, referring to the songwriter.
"That's all right. I'm still trying to distill this, and we're going to make some strong medicine out of this," the songwriter assures.
The veteran is asked to repeat details of that Las Vegas departure, then the songwriter comes up with the line: "I was leavin' from Las Vegas, walkin' with my dad and mom/It was so long, America, hello Vietnam ... "
"Perfect. Cool beans," the veteran says.
Songwriter and veteran take a break. William Newton needs one. "This is the most exhausted I've been in years," he says. "I didn't know I was that emotional about it, still."
WHERE THERE IS MUSIC
A peek into other sessions reveals several finished songs.
Songwriter Billy Montana peers at a laptop as he plays the folksy, poignant "Four Years and Seven Months Ago." This is Army veteran Eric Wooley's story.
Four years and seven months ago, I started startin' over
Four years and seven months ago, I started gettin' sober
For so long I couldn't find my way
Now I try to to live just for today
I decided to take a different road
Four years and seven months ago
Wooley served from 1981 to 1984, a peacetime post-Vietnam era veteran. He and Montana had met the night before and found an early bond.
How therapeutic has this storytelling/songwriting session been? "A lot more than most of the treatment I went through," Wooley says. "Working with a therapist, they're asking questions and the answers -- trying to seem to be real profound . . . . And this here is just more therapeutic 'cause I'm a musician too, and I feel that music is one way to express yourself, really express yourself, when you can't express it any other way. It's deeper."
In another room, songwriter Don Goodman reads lyrics about veteran Lisa Ware-Wilks, 53, of Little Rock -- "I Am Proud, I Am Woman, I Am Strong." It's about a woman who felt unloved and rejected, whose pain led to alcoholism and addiction:
The Army was my first family, leading me home where I belong
Honor and dignity, I was proud, I was woman, I was strong
Tore the ligaments in my knees, the Army rejected me
Started doing cocaine when the discharge came
I hit bottom; that's where I found myself
Anyone who had a heart would love me. My God did ...
He reached down and rescued me and gave me back my dignity.
Ware-Wilks is a Gulf War veteran who served in the Army from 1982 to 1991. As her song indicates, she had a rough time before and after. She and her brother, two years older, "raised ourselves, pretty much," she says. She'd dealt all her life with feelings of rejection, the feeling of never being able to meet her mother's expectations. Then came rejection from the Army: The strenuous desert training tore Ware-Wilks' ligaments and, she says, she couldn't pass the physical training test anymore.
"I just loved my time in the Army. When I got out, what identity I had was gone."
Her addiction, Ware-Wilks says, "was just another layer of pain or shame or rejection from the family ... they never tried to understand." As much as she has desired to have a stable relationship with her family, she says that in order to stay in a good place mentally, she has to love them from afar.
"But you know what? God is good. I'm just glad that he can use me. ... I'm free now. I just want to live out the rest of my life now doing whatever I can do to help somebody."
In yet another room comes the the story of Donnie Jones, a Navy Seal, who served from 1984 to 1992:
I'm an old soldier, an old soul
I love people, I love Jesus too
I turned my life around, I'm on a real good road
I'm an old soldier, an old soul.
For more information about Operation Song and its Little Rock Chapter, visit Operationsong.org and the Operation Song Little Rock page at Facebook.com. The Little Rock chapter's next retreat is April 26-27.
Style on 03/10/2019
CORRECTION: Bobby Tomberlin and Wil Nance are Nashville songwriters who participated in a February retreat for the Little Rock chapter of Operation Song. The men’s names were misspelled in an earlier version of this story.