Thank you for your service isn't enough. Although service members are proud to wear the uniform and serve their country, their devotion often comes at a cost and with a heavy weight. Operation Song is working with the VA to help carry that burden, through music.
Nashville Grammy and Dove-nominated songwriter Bob Regan knows good music. He's written a string of hits for the famous guitar-town over multiple decades and knows the power of a song. In the early 2000s he began touring for the Armed Forces Entertainment overseas. From the Emirates to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Djibouti, Japan, Western Europe and Kosovo, he met several service members whose stories stuck with him. Regan was made aware of the large number of service-related injuries and the difficulty of transitioning after service.
It was there in the hot desert of Afghanistan that he began to wonder if weaving their stories into a song might bring peace.
Regan founded Operation Song in 2012 and started at the VA Medical Center in Murfreesboro, TN. "Eight hundred and fifty songs later, we have veterans from all the way back to World War II, spouses, children and parents. None of this was planned out but the need was there so we just kept going," he explained.
Initially, Operation Song was working specifically with the post 9/11 veterans but that quickly changed. "At the VA, we started to see a lot of Vietnam Veterans and then Korean War veterans. Once in a while we were getting a World War II veteran too. There's not many of them left. We began to seek them out and we've been honored to tell some of their stories while they are still with us," Ragan said.
He shared that for the first seven years, it was intensely busy and he was trying to do everything as Operation Song continued to grow. With support and sponsors, they were able to bring in Kyle Frederick as the Executive Director, who had a background as a songwriter, musician and nonprofit manager.
"I love it. It makes perfect sense to me; I have family members that are veterans. I understand the concept and it is a great thing," Frederick said. "We are fortunate to have great writers just down the road. These men and women who can listen for a few hours and literally a few hours later there is a work of art that's therapeutic. It never doesn't work."
"Songwriters are really skilled at taking all these pieces and hanging them on an arc with a melody. I think what makes it so effective is when we work with veterans that have PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, is that they come in and say, 'I could never write a song.' We tell them, 'Good, you are the perfect candidate,'" Ragan said with a laugh.
The songwriters tell them to just share whatever they want, starting with a simple conversation. The magic and healing begins from there. The guitar starts strumming and the songwriter takes those pieces of their lives, crafting them into a song. Regan shared that watching the veterans' faces as the songs come alive is worth more than anything. "Over and over we've been told 'I've never told that to anyone before,'" Ragan said.
For several years they've been working with survivors of Military Sexual Trauma, bringing peace through melody and storytelling. As they were creating healing for veterans, they realized there was more they could do for the families of those veterans. Spouse retreats started and they began serving the children of veterans, too.
One memorable song, Lima Oscar Victor Echo, tells the story of falling in love with a service member, a song military spouses everywhere can relate to. One of the lines of the chorus is strikingly raw, saying, "I wasn't ready for this mission but I guess I'm signed up, too." The song highlights not only the reality of sacrifices made by spouses of service members but the love that makes it worth it all.
Operation Song also began bringing healing to Gold Star Families.
Nanette West lost her son, Kile West, to a roadside bomb in 2007 while he was deployed to Iraq. He died trying to rescue others who were trapped, receiving the Bronze Star and Purple Heart for his heroism. Nanette journeyed to Iraq in 2011 to retrace her son's steps, spending two years there as a defense contractor. The experience brought her closure and the music she created with Operation Song, peace.
The words of the song are a stark reminder of the cost of our almost 20-year war: "You swore to bring your troops back against all the odds and you kept your promise to every single one. If you could, I know you would stay. You gave your life on Memorial Day but I'm prouder than you could ever know. Even though it's hard to let you go, so many miles away from home. You've always been the braver one. My hero, my soldier, my son."
Nanette helped perform My Hero My Soldier My Son with Jenn Franklin at the Grand Ole Opry in August 2020. There were no dry eyes in the audience.
Although COVID-19 has made it near impossible to work in person for song writing, Operation Song isn't letting that stop them. Instead, they are using technology to their advantage. "We've discovered that we can reach more people. We were like, 'Wow, this works online,'" Frederick said.
"It's been incredibly rewarding for me and the best thing I've ever done," Regan shared. While he's loved his long and successful career as a songwriter, using his abilities to give back to those who serve and sacrifice has been the joy of a lifetime. Despite writing over 850 songs for the military community since 2012, they are just getting started. Operation Song's mission says it all: Bringing them back, one song at a time.
To learn more about Operation Song and the incredible work they are doing for our country's military, veterans and their families, click here.
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