A veteran isn't someone who sits on a street corner with a sign, or someone who has PTSD and a drinking problem. Veterans are brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers. And many of them also happen to be talented musicians with stories to tell.
It's that sentiment which led to the creation of Operation Encore, a "veteran music project" that brought singers and songwriters together to put their military experiences to song and verse. The result of the project was a compilation CD, released earlier this month, featuring songs written and performed by active-duty servicemembers, veterans and a military spouse.
The project's founders, two of whom are Legionnaires, say the goal was to not only provide a therapeutic outlet for its performers, but also help bridge the civilian-military divide that exists in our country.
"We call it Operation Encore because it is another chance at a different part of your life," says Legionnaire Erik Brine, a project co-founder. "We want to give these people that have this kind of talent a chance to use it. And we want to show other people that these aren’t just soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, but they are sisters, brothers, fathers and mothers."
The CD is currently on sale through iTunes and CDBaby. Proceeds first go toward unpaid production costs, and any excess profits will be donated to veterans charities and organizations. A Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign, which drew $15,000 in donations, provided the initial capital for reserving studio time, producing the record and artists' travel expenses.
In January, Operation Encore put out an open call for veteran and military musicians from all over to send in song submissions for consideration to be included on the CD. The only requirement was that the song submission be at least inspired - if not based on - an experience in the military. Thanks to a Facebook fan page and solicitation from VSOs like The American Legion, submissions poured in.
"Our only real criteria... was that it was a genuine song that they were inspired to write while in the military," says Legionnaire Rob Raymond, a co-founder and performer on the CD. "Some of them are more overtly military related. They are a personal stories or personal feelings about things in the military. And some of them are just songs that you might hear anyone play, like a love song."
The requirement that songs only loosely be based on the military allowed the artists to take a wide creative path, says Chris Kurek, also a co-founder and performer on the CD. Kurek, an Air Force veteran, used one of his two songs - "Never Be the Same" - to tell a true story about life with PTSD.
"It’s a sad truth that life is easier when people are shooting at you," Kurek says. "People might say, ‘I don’t understand that.’ In battle, there’s no mundane, there’s no slogging through the day. There are no decisions to be made. It’s just quick reactions, that’s it."
Kurek says he has never dealt with PTSD, but he has drawn inspiration to write about it from being around fellow veterans and through conversations with his mother, a VA psychologist.
"I wanted to be truthful without pandering," Kurek says. "I wanted to capture images of people who are uncomfortable in crowds and have these outbursts of anger that they know is not them... The whole 'never be the same again' is about how one of the worst things with PTSD is that people constantly say they want to go back to the way it was, when it is the reality that it will never be the way it was, ever. It’s actually impossible.
"It's about accepting that, but then also the fact that that doesn’t have to be the end of the story."
Stephen Covell, an Army veteran from San Mateo, Calif., sent in a few demos of miltary songs he'd written. Covell, who jokingly says his musical style is inspired by a childhood love for singer-songwriters like John Mayer and Jack Johnson, had two songs chosen for the CD: "On That River" and "Sand Hills to Sandals."
He was inspired to write "Sand Hills to Sandals" when he was flying home from Iraq and looking down from his airplane window onto the North Carolina countryside.
"Seeing all the green grass, lawns and fields and everything, it had just been so long since we’d seen anything like that," Covell says. "It was that surreal feeling of being back to familiar territory after being somewhere so weird. And the kind of back and forth where it feels good to be home, but it also feels sort of alien to be back in my old environment."
Covell was joined on the record by 10 other musicians, who sent in their submissions sometimes through crude iPhone recordings or even in written lyric form. Rachel Harvey Hill, a military spouse, was one of them. A friend urged her to submit "Another Trip Around the Sun," a song she wrote for her husband on the couple's 10th anniversary about their shared experiences as a military family.
"When I wrote it, I started thinking about what a journey our marriage had been so far," she says. "I was thinking about all the good, the bad, and the mundane that we had been through.”
She says she's proud to have been included on the CD and to have written a song which so many have found relatable.
"It’s really just been an awesome surprise and already I have had so many people come up and say ‘I really relate to your song,' especially military spouses, who really say they understand what the song is about," she says.
Operation Encore's mission, Brine says, is ultimately to tell stories like Hill's, which are highly personal and give a true account of military life.
"At a time in our society’s history when we have less than 1 percent of the population that serves, there are a lot of folks out there who have never even met a veteran and who don’t know anybody in uniform and don’t know what it means," Brine says. "We’ve got a lot of challenges and stereotypes to overcome."