Sargent’s phone is full of Prince hits. He likes Merle Haggard, too. But he doesn’t care whether his song is R&B or country. He just wants it to be about how America doesn’t understand its soldiers after a decade of war.
The 41-year-old Army staff sergeant was one of 11 veterans gathered at a plush hotel in this arid mountain town near Fort Carson last weekend to transpose their most difficult memories into music. The four-day camp was hosted by LifeQuest Transitions, a Colorado Springs-based nonprofit organization that helps veterans navigate the uncharted leap from the battlefield to civilian life — and one of the few doing it through the arts.
On Friday afternoon, Sargent plopped down on songwriter Radney Foster’s hotel room sofa and began to talk. About Iraq. About the suffocating heat. About the perpetual anxiety of combat. About the numbness that slowly crept up his legs in the blurry hours after the explosion that broke his back. About the depression that clamped down once he returned home. About the nights he spent laying on piles of dirty laundry in his bedroom closet, hoping to find enough quiet, enough darkness to sleep through his nightmares.
Foster and Darden Smith, two esteemed songwriters who have been involved with the camp since its inception, listen closely. As Sargent lets the words spill, they pick them up, assign them a shape, a melody, bending them into rhyme.
Ninety minutes later, they’ve finished “It Is What It Is,” a song about a soldier finally embarking on the homeward journey that he’s long anticipated — but in a medevac helicopter.
“These dog tags on my belt loop,” Foster sings, “remind me I’m still alive.”
The puddles that have been building in Sargent’s eyes spill over. “This is the first time I’ve heard myself speak,” he says. “It’s like I’m hearing myself talk.”
He slips out the sliding glass door, onto the hotel patio. Smith and Foster set down their guitars and follow him outside. As the afternoon sun sinks into the Rocky Mountains, Sargent crushes his Marlboro underfoot and exhales.
“I’m healing myself through you guys,” he says.
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According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 13 percent of post-Sept. 11, 2001, veterans were unemployed last month, compared with 8.5 percent for the country. Veterans account for 20 percent of suicides in America, even though veterans make up 7 percent of the overall population. And according to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the divorce rate among service members increased from 2.6 percent in 2001 to 3.6 percent in 2010.
LifeQuest started its music camp as part of its overall effort to help fight the reality those figures represent. The participants that they’ve invited are men and women, ages 26 to 56, from the Army, Air Force and Marines. Most are grappling with post-traumatic stress. Some have suffered traumatic brain injuries. Two will return to duty this year. All are continuously adapting to a home that feels otherworldly after years in combat.