SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
According to one study, nearly 300,000 men and women who've served in Iraq or Afghanistan suffer from some form of post-traumatic stress. More than half don't seek treatment, but for those who do reach out, resources from traditional therapies to new approaches are available. And at a retreat outside Fort Hood, Texas, a group of Army veterans suffering from PTSD agree to try something new - collaborating with accomplished American songwriters to capture their stories through music. KUT's David Brown reports.
STAFF SERGEANT EUSTACIO OBREGON: You know, we learned how to do the old fireman (unintelligible)...
DAVID BROWN, BYLINE: In a small cabin room at the woodsy Central Texas retreat, Staff Sergeant Eustacio Obregon sits on a sofa beside his wife. She keeps looking at his face, touching his arm as if to reassure him of her presence.
OBREGON: Well, for me, it's been four tours. From the first one to the last one, it's just a constant build-up - everything tacked on until it was just - there was - had one of those moments. And it came down to either losing my family or dealing with my PTSD.
BROWN: Obregon stares down at the floor, fumbling with his watch. He recalls his first deployment and his desperation to find a phone in the middle of the Iraqi desert to call home.
OBREGON: Everything that I could do to get just a phone call so I can hear her voice and tell her that I love her, let her know that I'm OK - I've never shared any of this. This is all new for me. I've kept all this bottled up since 2003.
BROWN: On the other side of the coffee table, Americana singer-songwriter Radney Foster of the SongwritingWith:Soldiers project listens closely and takes notes. Obregon and his wife begin to reminisce about the stars they'd look up to each night to keep a connection during deployment. Foster picks up his road-worn Gibson guitar and begins to play.
RADNEY FOSTER: (Singing) Looked at our stars tonight, said I loved you then I said goodnight, tomorrow I'm gonna say it all again...
BROWN: Foster says the clipped style of military speech actually contributes to the collaborative process. As he puts it: Simple words make great songs.
FOSTER: You know, I've written with people who've been shot, or amputees, have post-traumatic stress. There's something about that that makes them speak in poetry and they don't know they're doing it.
BROWN: At this weekend retreat, 10 soldiers - veterans of multiple deployments, all dealing with some form of post-traumatic stress - agree to be paired with professional, established songwriters. Singer-songwriter Darden Smith is founder of the project.
DARDEN SMITH: The way that the process works when we're writing with soldiers, when we sit down to write a song, we just ask them questions. We get quiet. And we let them talk.
BROWN: Smith is quick to underscore this isn't therapy. But Dr. Jerry Wesch, a clinical psychologist based at Fort Hood, says there is something healing about the process.
DR. JERRY WESCH: The music is a way of moving emotion and images and ideas out of you, into an objective form where you can see what it is, where you can express it, where you can face and honor what's happened to you. And the process has been amazing.
SERGEANT FIRST CLASS SCOTT MCRAE: I can see how.
BROWN: Sergeant First Class Scott McRae is also giving the process a try. He served in the invasion of Iraq and has done two tours of duty in Afghanistan, but he admits he was reluctant to come here.
MCRAE: I'm certainly not an artsy kind of guy, so was a little apprehensive.
BROWN: McRae sits on a couch, slumped back in his oversized khaki jacket. He begins to share his story with Smith through a clenched fist covering his mouth.
SMITH: What's starting to make sense to you? What...
MCRAE: My life.
SMITH: Your life.
MCRAE: Yeah. That old dream is starting to make sense.
SMITH: How long have you (unintelligible)...
MCRAE: It's a different dream now. It's not the same one.
SMITH: (Singing) I went to war one man, came home another. I loved that bottle just like a brother. Saw that white picket fence just disappear.
BROWN: McRae leans forward, now completely engaged in the process. He's listening to his own story.
MCRAE: You know, I have come a ways from where I used to be, and it's been really a powerful experience for me.
SMITH: (Singing) Yeah, I got a new dream, I got a new dream...
BROWN: The project in its infancy has drawn major donors, including The Bob Woodruff Foundation and Lockheed Martin. There are plans to expand nationally in 2013. For NPR News, I'm David Brown in Belton, Texas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.