Think, drink, slink, stink, blink. Making a list of words that rhyme with “sink” might seem like an unusual way to help returned military veterans transition back into society. It sounds more like a beginner songwriting class.
But the dozen or so would-be musicians gathered Tuesday in the music hall of Samʼs Burger Joint were doing both. They were attending a monthly meeting of the San Antonio chapter of the nationwide nonprofit Soldier Songs and Voices.
The all-volunteer organization connects established musicians and songwriters with vets of all eras, as well as those on active duty, for free songwriting and music lessons — guitars provided if needed — to help heal the wounds of war.
Karina Miller spent six years in the Navy. She came by Soldier Songs and Voices at the suggestion of a friend, Diana Ceja, who was in the Marines for four years and was at the recent Tuesday night workshop, too.
“This is the second time here for me,” Miller said. “Itʼs good therapy because itʼs always good to be learning something new. And because itʼs with other veterans, you bypass the pretense you have to go through with people who arenʼt. Everyone understands the culture immediately.”
Deb Wesloh also knows about musicʼs power to heal.
“It can do incredible things,” said the 13-year Army veteran, who suffers from neuropathy and is in recovery from breast cancer.
“Itʼs my therapy,” she added during a break from strumming along with other veterans and a pair of instructors.
Founded in 2011 in San Marcos by singer-songwriter Dustin Welch, Soldier Songs and Voices today has chapters in seven cities, including four in Texas.
“Writing and playing music helps vets organize their experiences and allows them to say things they canʼt easily say sitting and talking to a therapist,” said Welch, who grew up in Nashville and wrote the song “Sparrows,” which appeared on the album “Voices of a Grateful Nation (Vol.1).” “We get people who have isolated themselves and watched how music helps bring them out into the world again.”
Attorney Tom Vickers, who leads the San Antonio chapter, runs things with a loose, friendly abandon, welcoming newcomers and those whoʼve come to previous workshops equally warmly.
Also on hand is Cliff McLean, owner of Dietz-McLean Optical and a mean picker and songwriter in his own right.
“Tom and I have been friends since middle school, and when he asked me to help, I said yes immediately,” McLean said.
To help their students, who have varying levels of musical ability, loosen up, Vickers and McLean start the class with 10 minutes of freeform writing, using the phrase “bathroom mirror” as a prompt.
McLean has brought a plastic bin containing pencils, pens of various colors, yellow legal pads, composition notebooks — no one can use the excuse that they donʼt have their preferred writing tools.
After 10 minutes of quiet writing, Vickers calls time and asks if anyone wants to read their writing. Like a class of shy grade-schoolers, no one volunteers. Finally, he asks Lori Manning to read hers.
“It kind of sucks,” she said to laughter, and then explained that, coincidentally, sheʼd put up new bathroom mirrors in her home earlier in the day. Her composition notebook page starts with words like “foggy” and “steam” and soon transitions to concepts such as clarity and phrases like “fresh and clean.” The prosaic bathroom mirror has become a metaphor for life.
Manning also had written what could be the beginning of a song.
Welch estimates that 300 to 400 veterans have come through the Soldier Songs and Voices program since its inception.
Sean Makra is one of the groupʼs success stories. The 11-year Army vet did three tours of Iraq and was a staff sergeant when he left the military in 2011. Difficulties with painkillers, marital problems and an arrest that led to six months in jail nearly finished him off.
But it was while in jail that he picked up a guitar for the first time in years.
“Things were so loud that Iʼd have to sit in a corner and press my ear to the guitar to hear what I was playing,” Makra said. “But I started to feel something electric. It was like a pulse in a corpse, a sign of life.”
Once released, he connected with Soldier Songs and Voices in San Marcos in 2013, which meets weekly at the renowned Cheatham Street Warehouse.
“I walked in and played some songs Iʼd written, and they accepted me right away,” said Makra, who also is studying to become a music teacher. “I went there for several months.”
He met fellow musicians and with two others formed Drive On Mac, which, for more than four years, played what he described as bluesrock originals and made several recordings. That band is on a break, and Makra now plays bass with another group, Stealing Blue, which has played gigs as far away as Tennessee and California.
Would this all have happened to him without Soldier Songs and Voices?
“Man, I donʼt know,” he said after a long pause. “Iʼd like to be optimistic and say I would have found something, but Soldier Songs was there when I needed it.”
Although the participants often describe what happens during these workshops as “therapy,” itʼs not actually that, at least not as defined by the American Music Therapy Association, said Barbara A. Else, a senior adviser of policy and research for the association.
True music therapy, she said, follows an established set of practice guidelines, code of ethics and standards. Without proper training, songwriting and music exercises can be risky, she said.
“Music can be highly evocative for individuals who may be in fragile states,” Else wrote in an email. “Songwriting and music exercises (may) trigger or exacerbate a mental health crisis if the veteran has post-traumatic stress, complex injuries, and/or a history of depression.”
While there are no therapists on the Soldier Songs and Voices staff, Welch, the nonprofitʼs founder, said he has had conversations with several to compare the groupʼs methods with standard practices.
“What is interesting is that many of the writing exercises we came to naturally turned out to be right in line with clinical methods,” he said in an email. “The only difference is (we have) a much more casual presentation, where it doesnʼt necessarily feel like ‘therapy.ʼ”
After the writing exercise, the Samʼs Burger Joint group breaks into two. In one, Vickers and fellow instructor Jeph Duarte taught basic chord fingering, including the chords of D, G and C. (“Itʼs like climbing stairs, but missing a step,” Vickers told them).
The others, more experienced guitarists, strummed along with McLean, noodling around with various melodies. At one point, he sang a silly, nonsensical number he wrote about the single shoes he often sees, alone and forlorn, on the side of the roadway. When he asked if anyone else had a song theyʼd written, David McCormick, a 26-year Air Force vet who retired in 2008, volunteered a more somber piece about lost comrades called “You Served Well.” The chorus goes:
“You served well, you served well/ Your dutyʼs now done, my friend
farewell/ You served well, you served well/ This country you loved, our God up above/ The many you touched, you served well.”
Richard A. Marini is a features writer in the San Antonio and Bexar County area. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. | firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter: @RichardMarini