Rod Napier is a Vietnam vet. He stands at the front of a small group, his white beard shaking with the rhythm as he strums a 12-bar blues song on his guitar with novice, but full hearted, accuracy. "Oh, Vietnam, what did you do to me?," he sings. "You took my youth away from me."
Tucked away in the atrium at the St. Clair building in downtown Bend, a group of singer-songwriters, local musicians and veterans gathered this past Friday to showcase five months worth of crafting military experience into song. The monthly presentation is the result of Soldier Songs, an emerging national program helping veterans from wars as recent as Iraq and as decades removed as Vietnam deal with mental and emotional wounds.
Six months ago, local songwriter and veteran Bill Valenti applied for a start-up kit from the Colorado-based national organization, Soldier Songs. After hearing a story about the program on NPR, he hoped to start up a Central Oregon chapter of the non-profit. Other chapters have already taken root in music towns like Nashville and Austin, as well as a number of smaller Northwest cities, like Boise, which have populations hit disproportionately hard by the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Valenti was convinced that Bend would be a good fit for a chapter of Soldier Songs.
"I approached a couple of friends of mine who were songwriters, most notably Mark Quon," explained Valenti. "[The program] is focused on working with the veterans to give them lessons on co-writing songs and guitar...helping the veterans craft a song based on their experiences."
As he expected, Valenti found several partners in the community willing to collaborate.
Tom Hudson—who operates a song exchange group in Bend every Monday night at the Bend Community Center—offered the space to Valenti every third Monday of the month. Breedlove Guitars pitched in by making their entry level guitars available to Soldier Songs at reduced prices. In turn, those guitars have been loaned to area veterans who want to learn to play. And songwriters like Quon and Tim Coffey partner up with veterans to teach them how to turn their stories into lyrics. With up to 15 members showing up each third Monday, Soldier Songs is still just getting off the ground.
Marine Corps veteran Tom Leonard, 54, jumped with both feet (hands?) into the group. With a focus on country music, he has crafted a song about the "unsung hero" of the rodeo, the rodeo clown. He also has written a creative military themed song called "Boots."
"I'm a firm believer in this program," said Leonard. "It helps me relax. I've noticed some changes in my life, and how I feel by playing the guitar and writing music. The interesting thing about this whole thing for me is that I have a brain injury with short-term memory loss, and this helps train and reroute information so that I can remember it. Being able to stay on track and focus and play the whole song through without forgetting a line is really fantastic."
Janet Foliano-Kemp, a behavioral health consultant for St. Charles Health System in Bend, agrees that the format of Soldier Songs holds promise for veterans dealing with PTSD.
"There are several treatments for PTSD that have strong empirical evidence that support them such as cognitive processing therapy, prolonged exposure and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing," explained Foliano-Kemp. "All of these include processing the memories at some level. Group therapy is wonderful, because the person not only gets to share their experiences but they get to hear others share as well. This helps them understand that they are not alone in their experiences or their reactions."
7 p.m., third Monday of every month
Bend Community Center
1036 NE 5th St.