Operation Song Fights to Repair the Minds of American Veterans

Miriam Mimms
Operation Song co-founder Bob Regan (left) performed with veterans Jimmy Sells (center) and Ian Wagner at the start of the 2016 Memorial Day Parade in front of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

Songwriters use their trade to help U.S. soldiers battle the trauma of war.

When songwriter Bob Regan (“Thinkin’ About You,” “Your Everything”) and two war veterans -- Purple Heart recipient Ian Wagner and Navy specialist Jimmy Ray Sells -- performed “The Last Monday in May” during a Salute the Troops edition of the Grand Ole Opry on May 23, the song provided a miniature history lesson. Told by the ghosts of soldiers, it touches on at least six American conflicts, from the Civil War to the War in Iraq.

But behind that song is an ongoing program in which veterans mine their own personal histories to grapple with battle memories that continue to haunt them, keeping them emotionally trapped as they maneuver through civilian life. Regan founded Operation Song five years ago after several tours with a group of songwriters who played for American troops on duty overseas. Regan, who earned a psychology degree that he says he has never used professionally, saw the connection music was making with the enlistees and guessed that the opportunity to create songs about their experiences might help some vets rationalize the irrational.

“Songwriters are armchair therapists,” Regan says. “We sit in a room and tell each other our trials and tribulations and joys and woes, and then we try to make them make sense in a song.”

He seems to have hit on something. Operation Song now conducts six ongoing weekly programs in four Tennessee cities -- Nashville, Murfreesboro, Clarksville and Chattanooga -- and another batch of songwriting retreats widens the sphere of influence to Fort Benning, Ga., and Pensacola, Fla.

The idea is simple: Enrollees commit to an eight- to 10-week course that functions a bit like group therapy. They learn some fundamentals about songwriting and talk about their wartime experiences in a group. Before the course concludes, they work with a professional songwriter to compose a title that expresses their own individual story.

Many participants are reticent to speak much during the first few weeks, but by the end, they’re often expressing details from their service that they’ve never shared before.

“Something happens when somebody is telling you a story and you can go, ‘Hey, wait a minute, how does this sound?’” Regan says. “You play it back to them with chords. It’s very disarming, and it opens people up.”

Regan, who is officially retired, is extremely dedicated. He runs the program for free and hints that he spends more than 50 hours a week on it, conducting sessions with veterans and finding songwriters willing to share their skill set. Songwriters Don Goodman (“Ol’ Red,” “Angels Among Us”) and Steve Dean (“Watching You,” “Southern Star”) are core contributors, overseeing a weekly group at Erlanger Hospital in Chattanooga. In all, roughly 50 songwriters have been paid to participate, including Charlie Black (“A Little Good News,” “Right on the Money”), Kerry Kurt Phillips (“Down on the Farm,” “I Don’t Need This Rockin’ Chair”), Wil Nance (“She’s Everything,” “Round About Way”) and contemporary Christian composer Regie Hamm.

“I tell the writers in this role, they’re about two-thirds therapist,” Regan says. “When it comes to being the one-third songwriter, you’ve got to be good, and you’ve got to work fast.”

Operation Song combats an issue that’s growing in the national consciousness. Twenty former servicemen and women commit suicide every day, according to a study of 2014 data by the Veterans Administration. That rate is nearly one-third higher than in 2001. The VA also indicates that as many as 20 percent of veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder in a given year.

“Everybody who has been in an IED [improvised explosive device] blast or around repeated ordinance firings -- one huge concussion or medium concussions -- there’s been a tremendous amount of brain injuries,” Regan says. “So combine PTSD with traumatic brain injury, and your emotions and your experiences get scrambled. I have no clinical evidence, but this is what it seems like to me: You might be agitated, and you don’t know where to put the pieces. You have the puzzle piece, but the puzzle is just jumbled up.”

That’s where writing songs about their experiences and emotions can make a difference.

“The first phase of writing a song with somebody is just getting the puzzle pieces thrown out onto the table,” Regan explains. “They may not be able to see what the picture is, but songwriters make a living looking at a story and finding a thread that runs through it.”

Therapists refer many of the participants, and for some veterans, the program works better than visits with a psychologist. One graduate quoted on the Operation Song website called it “therapy on steroids.” Another said, “Songwriting has done more for me in two months than the shrink did in two years.”

That happens, theorizes Regan, because music links a person’s intellect and emotions.

“Music has resolution to it,” he says. “It creates a resolution in that little three-and-a-half minutes, instead of rattling around in somebody’s head in random outbursts. Now it kind of lives out in a little story.”

Regan will perform two songs from the program on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day with Operation Song alumni Wagner and Sells. Meanwhile, Regan is hoping to find a publisher or administration company willing to help out. Though earning money is not the point of the exercise, the songs are treated as commercial ventures, and the veterans get paid royalties when appropriate (“The Last Monday in May” has made about $150). The checks may be small, but if the veterans frame them, they can serve as a makeshift diploma for their work in the class. It’s a visible sign that they’ve been able to make a change in their inner lives.

“It’s mostly made me grateful,” Regan says of Operation Song. “There’s some people walking around with horrible memories and guilt and every emotion you can imagine, and they’re really struggling with them, sometimes 50 or 60 years later.”