Chuck saw atrocities in the jungles of ‘Nam. Chris was attacked by America’s allies in Afghanistan. Anni was assaulted back at home. How a legion of traumatized vets are turning tragedy into song.
It was nearly eleven o’clock at night in the southern Wardak province of Afghanistan. Chris Chirco, a twenty-three-year-old Specialist in the Third Army Division, was up late in the Tactical Operations Center of the Dash-e Towp combat outpost, logging inventory for the interpreters because he was in charge of all of their tactical gear. At the end of his twelve-hour shift, he went back to his room. He was sitting on his bed when an Afghan National Army interpreter burst in. “The commander needs to see you right away.” Chris grabbed his stuff and followed the interpreter to the Afghan side of the base, which was normally off limits to Americans. Because he worked directly with his commander, and it was a hurried situation, he didn’t think about it. As he crossed the threshold, he was hit on the back of the head by a baseball bat.
Chris says he doesn’t know how long he was unconscious, but that when he came to, he was being sexually assaulted by five Afghan National Army soldiers. They told him he had been targeted because he spoke their language, Pashto. And he was going to be killed. Good, he thought. He wanted to die in that moment.
It lasted a couple of hours. First three of them left, then another, then finally the last. Chris lay there, naked, bloody, bruised and alone. He doesn’t recall how long it took to pull himself together, but eventually he made a run for it, back to his side of the base. He went straight to the showers. It was obvious they had decided not to kill him, but he didn’t know why. He didn’t know what to do, what to say, or what was going on.
For six months, he didn’t report the assault or tell anyone what happened. It was difficult for him to admit, and he didn’t know whom to tell. There were avenues for discussing combat experiences (he had seen plenty of combat in his eleven months in Afghanistan), but he wasn’t aware of one for discussing sexual trauma while in a war zone, especially as a man.
He stayed in Afghanistan for another few weeks (the assault occurred a month before the end of his deployment). When he returned home, he was ordered to relocate from Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, to Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas. It’s not uncommon for soldiers returning from deployment to be reassigned (the Army likes to spread out the deployment units), but leaving the strong brotherhood at his old base for a brand new group of people at a new base was more than he could handle. He started drinking around the clock and spiraling downward.
Finally, at Fort Hood, Chris found a chaplain and collapsed at his feet, words and tears tumbling out uncontrollably. With the help of the chaplain, he started an extensive forty-five-day therapy program at Laurel Ridge Treatment Center. “It was the darkest time in my life,” says Chris. “I wasn’t ready for the world. I had given up.”
* * *
Around the same time, seventy miles away in an Austin coffee shop, Chris’ brother Keith happened to strike up a conversation with Darden Smith, a Texan-born singer-songwriter with fourteen albums and extensive U.S. and European touring under his belt. When Keith mentioned his brother had been in Afghanistan, Darden told him to check out SongwritingWith: Soldiers.
Darden founded the SongwritingWith: program in 2011 as a way to use “collaborative songwriting to help individuals whose lives have been challenged by trauma tell their stories.” Past participants included homeless youth, HIV patients, caregivers, and Palestinian and Israeli youth. By the time Keith met Darden, the program was focusing more on veterans and renamed SongwritingWith: Soldiers (SW:S).
Keith remembered that Chris had had a passion for music growing up, and thought he’d be interested. He also knew Chris had experienced something traumatic in Afghanistan, but didn’t know any of the details. After Keith shared the program with him, Chris decided to sign up for the upcoming retreat in Belton, Texas, slated for April 26 to 28, 2013. He was prepared to back out until the last minute, but his therapist at the time encouraged him not to.
When he arrived he had made the decision to talk about everything with whoever would listen. He hated the idea of talking about what happened to him, but he hated the stigma of rape more, and was tired of being ashamed. “It was only a couple hours of my life, but I didn’t want to be defined by what happened,” says Chris. He arrived early and walked into the empty Cedarbrake Renewal Center. The next person to walk in was Mary Judd, Executive Director of SW:S. She introduced herself. He introduced himself. Then they hugged. From that moment on, they became the closest of friends. “She radiated unconditional love,” Chris recalls.
In the sessions with songwriters Darden Smith, Darrell Scott and Jay Clementi, Chris opened up in a way he hadn’t before. Outside of therapy and need-to-know personnel in the military he had never spoken to anyone about the assault, fearing that to do so would be taboo. But he felt freer with the songwriters, partly because he thought he would never see any of them again.
“Something strange happened when for the first time I looked into another human being’s eyes, not a therapist, but a stranger who had no obligations to me, and told them about my experiences,” says Chris. “I found every one of the artists to have one thing in common: They were all ready to listen. That was really profound to me because I had always imagined people shying away — avoiding my gaze and never being the same. After they were done listening, they were able to take from me the deepest, darkest, ugliest moments of my life and transform them into something beautiful.”
That weekend the songwriters and Chris wrote three songs, including I’m Not Supposed To Be Here.
I’m not supposed to be here, I’m not supposed to tell
I’m to lie down in this darkness and live here in this hell
Make believe that nothing happened, make believe I’m still OK
This pain inside me fights me and will not go away
It never goes away
I’m not supposed to be here – I’m the accidental child
I live my accidental lifetime – and live in your denial
But I will break this code of silence – This shame is killing me
I will break the chains that bind me – This caged bird will be free
I spoke with Chris a year and a half later at the November 2014 SW:S retreat in Upstate New York.
In 2012, Darden Smith reached out to Mary Judd, a friend since middle school with a background in educational programming, program development and positive psychology, to help him run the SW:S program; he would be Creative Director, she Executive Director. One of their many shared philosophies is that bringing back graduates of previous retreats helps new participants feel more comfortable.
A comfortable, relaxed atmosphere is key to the SW:S mission of encouraging creativity.
Programs have been held in medical centers like Walter Reed, but the full ‘immersion’ experience only happens at facilities like the Carey Institute For Global Good in Rensselaerville.
The Carey Institute, formerly the Rensselaerville Institute (a think tank and conference center) “is dedicated to making the world better by providing a place in nature where people connect, create and address today’s most pressing issues.” Its collection of historic homes and new buildings sit on a beautiful 100-acre campus overlooking the Myosotis Lake include private rooms with balconies for overnight guests, quaint country houses for long-term guests, an auditorium which fits up to 175 people, a media center, a full restaurant with chef, a large, well-stocked library with plush couches and fireplace, and the most picturesque views one can ask for. Walking through the grounds, which are abundant with deer, rabbits and birds, one definitely feels far away from the day-to-day grind of normal life.
After dinner in the banquet hall on the first night of the retreat, Chris Chirco, the fifteen new veterans, and the large SW:S team of staff, songwriters, volunteers, videographers, photographers and therapists, stood up one by one and introduced him/herself.
The fifteen male and female Army, Navy, Marine Corp, Air Force and National Guard veterans ranged in age from twenty-eight to sixty-nine, and had served in most of the major conflicts of the past fifty years, including Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Somalia, Kuwait and Afghanistan. Some spoke in hushed tones, some with tears in their eyes, one in a wheelchair, a couple with their wives by their side. They didn’t seem like military people – or what I imagine military people to be like. They seemed like gentle giants; quiet, introspective, vulnerable, extremely sensitive and full of emotion.
In contrast, the songwriters were a grizzly, weathered bunch, survivors of a different kind, sensitive in a different way.
“I’m not a licensed musical therapist or the military,” Darden said in a gentle Texan twang, standing tall, muscular and lean in dark jeans, with short grey hair, and an earring in his left ear. “It’s not about us. All we’re interested in is telling the truth. These are not our songs. They’re your songs.”
“You guys are fully loaded,” songwriter Mary Gauthier added in a New Orleans drawl. “Songs and trauma go together. Songs heal trauma. They’ve healed my trauma. Through song I have become whole. So, I guess what I’m sayin’ is, throw me the dirt.”
* * *
The next morning, some of the veterans went to yoga, some went to a creativity workshop, and a few paired up with the songwriters in private rooms with the goal of producing a song within a couple of hours.
Mary Gauthier happened to pair up with Anni, an Air Force and Army veteran in her late 50s.
“When I heard you last night, I was hoping I’d get you,” Anni smiled shyly.
“It was meant to be,” Mary responded, looking around the room. “There is way too much sunlight in here. Mind if we draw the curtains a bit?”
Once the room was sufficiently dark enough, the two women sat down, Anni in an armchair, Mary on the couch with her guitar to the side, a laptop on the coffee table, and a double espresso in a paper cup in her hand.
Within a few minutes, both women revealed something deeply personal. Mary was given up for adoption at one day old and never met her biological family. Anni experienced military sexual trauma years ago, not once but twice, when she was in the Army.
Anni explains that the first incident happened in 1975, when Anni was in chaplain’s assistant school. She was thinner back then, big breasted and good looking. She’s gained 150 pounds since and had a breast reduction in order to avoid attention. She used to be very friendly. Now she’s hesitant, quiet and shy. She doesn’t flirt and doesn’t put herself out there. She tells Mary she feels like she has a bullseye on her back. “I don’t know why it happened to me, it was so difficult to stop it.”
Now, forty years later, the trauma is reenacted in nightmares when she sleeps. When she’s awake and her mind is quiet a ghost comes in, like an apparition, and floats towards her carrying feelings of dread and anger.
Mary whips out the guitar and sings softly: When my mind goes quiet, ghosts float in… I can’t stop it from happening again.
Anni’s face lights up with almost child-like wonder, “Wow.”
“It’s like a baby being born, and they start off so damn ugly, don’t they?” Mary smiles.
They go on like this, back and forth, for over an hour — Anni telling her story, Mary listening, typing on her computer, grabbing the guitar and singing. In moments of inspiration, Mary references spirituality: “Let go and let God.” In moments of frustration, she calls on her muses: “What would Emmylou Harris do?”
Anni mentions that she enlisted voluntarily for the army at age seventeen with the help of her mother, even though she didn’t come from a military family, and at a time when everyone was trying to dodge an unpopular war (Vietnam). “I was called to serve and I loved it,” Anni says. She was trained to be a soldier in the infantry, trained to fight and protect and advance, ready to fire at any time. “I would do it again if I had to, if I could.”
“And you’re still fighting for truth, and fighting for all the women who have experienced what you have,” Mary says. “You’re still a soldier in the infantry.”
“Yes, I suppose I am,” Anni smiles.
Mary slaps her hands together. “I think we have ourselves a title.”
Anni Barrett’s song A Soldier in the Infantry:
I was seventeen when I first went in
I was called to serve my fellow men
It’s my destiny I was born to be
A soldier in the infantry
I went thru basic then I went to school
To be a chaplain’s assistant they taught me the tools
I was just a girl, with sergeants over me
A soldier in the infantry
I didn’t see it coming
I didn’t say a word
For thirty years I just did my work
I closed my eyes I tried not to see
A soldier in the infantry
Later, Anni tells me that she had been apprehensive before the retreat, and afraid to tell her story. She didn’t want to relive it again by saying it out loud. “I thought, where can I hide so I won’t have to go through with it? But I’m glad I didn’t. More came out than I anticipated, I think because of working with Mary. If I were working with one of the guys I might not have been so open. I think she understood.”
Mary Judd, Executive Director of SW:S, thinks the alchemy between the vets and the musicians has to do with really being heard. “The songwriters listen with two ears. One ear is a major, gifted, professional musician and songwriter intent on writing as good of a song as they possibly can. The other side is listening as a trusted human being, just hearing it all, unflinching and not judging.”
* * *
Chuck Tryon, who also worked with Mary Gauthier, can attest to how powerful it is to not only be heard but also acknowledged after years of silence. Chuck was a twenty-three-year old Navy photographer when he was stationed on the USS Newport News, a heavy cruiser used in Vietnam to provide air defense and shore bombardment for the American effort.
One day, the ship was requested for gun support at Monkey Mountain, the tallest mountain in Vietnam, near the Demilitarized Zone that separated North and South Vietnam. Monkey Mountain was an important stronghold for American forces because it was used as a headquarters for radio communication equipment, and it was often under attack.
As a photographer, Chuck witnessed a lot of horrible images up close and personal. But what he saw and photographed that day at Monkey Mountain has haunted him for nearly forty-five years — atrocities that he now prefers not to relate in depth, but describes only as “collateral damage.” Later, his superiors told him that he didn’t see what he thought he saw.
“What bothered me the most was that the powers that be told me ‘oh, you didn’t see that,’” says Tryon. “I was there. I know what I saw, but I couldn’t say anything about it because no one was going to back me up. So I had to pretend like nothing happened. I’m only one pebble on the beach. You just keep your mouth shut and do what you gotta do.”
After the war, Chuck spent twenty years as a homicide investigator in Colony, New York, again photographing the devastating results of man’s propensity for violence. When he retired in 1993, things came to the surface.
“You had to live with all of those little things in your mind, and you’re not supposed to have any feelings,” says Tryon. “You put it away and pretend it didn’t happen. Then as time goes on it starts to gnaw at you. And that’s where I was at when I went to the retreat.”
Chuck Tryon’s song: I Don’t Believe What I Was Told
There’s a crack in my armor I don’t know what to do
After all these years something’s pushing through
My mind spins, my thoughts implode
I don’t believe what I was told
I feel guilty just to be alive
I’m still here, but I don’t know why
Monkey Mountain massacre, I see it with my eyes closed
I don’t believe what I was told
At the end of the retreat’s first full day, all the songs that were written that day were performed for SW:S participants and some invited guests, including several veterans who weren’t participating but lived locally.
After the performance of Chuck’s song, two of the local veterans approached Chuck and told him they were also at Monkey Mountain. “Welcome home,” they said, placing their hands on his shoulder. Neither he nor they spoke directly about what they saw there, but Chuck says there was a silent recognition. “My knees were shaking,” says Chuck. “That was the first acknowledgement I’ve had in over forty years. That was my closure.”
* * *
Six weeks after the retreat, Mary Judd and I met for a coffee in Delmar, New York, where she has an office. She has brown hair, blue eyes, and a warm, quietly firm demeanor. She’s the kind of a woman who can command attention without having to raise her voice. She also strikes me as someone who would stand in front a moving train to protect her loved ones, including the SW:S participants.
She tells me how some of the veterans from the weekend are doing. One got a dog after the retreat, not wanting to be alone. Another applied for music school, another to graduate school for social work. A veteran and his wife are now working as Mary’s part-time assistants.
Mary makes sure to keep tabs on everyone individually. She also organizes a group phone call with the veterans a month after the retreats, so they can share updates with each other. She encourages them to keep in touch. “The main thing the veterans deal with is loneliness and isolation,” she says. “Feeling like no one is going to understand.” But the view of their story changes in the creative process. The experience becomes a song that is received and responded to immediately. “Something shifts.”
With the help of the chaplain at Fort Hood, Chris Chirco eventually reported his assault to the Army’s SHARP program (Sexual Harassment/Assault Response & Prevention) and CID (Criminal Investigation Command). CID confirmed that an investigation is “ongoing.”
“To this day most of the people in my company don’t know what happened to me,” says Chris. He credits Songwritingwith: Soldiers, and the songs he wrote there, as the beginning of the real spiritual healing he needed in order to re-enter life.
“I’m not saying this is a cure all for people, like write a song and all your problems will be gone,” says Chris. “But it’s good to turn those dark moments into something beautiful.”
* * *
Postscript: Since the retreat last fall, two participants from the November edition, Adin Jonathan Olid and Ana Rouse-Chatman passed away (Adin’s death was reported as natural causes, Ana’s from cancer). Their SW:S songs were played at their funerals.
I couldn’t see the sun shine
On a sunny day
I couldn’t feel the cool breeze blowing
Coming off the bay
Just a ghost walking
Holding hands with fate
Couldn’t see the sun shine
On the Golden Gate
I was up on the bridge, thinking it was strange
The nation was at Starbucks while we were down range
Sometimes I feel like the walking dead
Can’t get these thoughts out of my head
I been on a journey
Through my pain
I know my journey
Is not in vain
I learned to lean on my higher power
To take me through the fight
I have his hand to lead me
On my journey to the light
It’s been a battle
All my life
It’s been a struggle
Day and night
In my time of weakness
He was there for me
I know he’s gonna give me
* * *
Niva Dorell Smith is a filmmaker and freelance writer currently based in New York. She is working on a memoir about being a newlywed widow and writes regularly about grief and writing at www.ridingbitchblog.com Twitter @nivaladiva