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Operation Song: Veterans partner with Nashville songwriters

By MIKE CHRISTEN | The Daily Herald, Columbia, Tenn. | Published: May 21, 2019

HOHENWALD, Tenn. (Tribune News Service) — Under the cover of a pavilion overlooking a fog-covered Dan Maddox Lake, Bob Wedge and Jerry Vandiver may have had a breathtaking view before them, but the two were in a world of their own.

Lost in a mix of lyrics, chord progressions and key changes, the two were busy putting pen to paper and working out a tune as a light rain rang out in a rhythm of its own overhead.

The two didn't seemed to mind when the occasional fishing boat would pass close by to investigate the twangs of Vandiver's guitar and Wedge's rumbling baritone voice.

"It was just another day, but oh so long ago," the two sang in unison. "Traveling up the waterways, they all use as roads. The muffled sound of gunfire. The ringing in my head. Why was I lying on the deck? I thought that I was dead."

Titled "Just Another Day," the song is a chronicle of Wedge's own experience serving on a patrol board during the Vietnam War. It takes the 75-year-old back to the day he was shot while traveling up the dangerous Mekong River Delta during his third tour of duty, an injury that took the majority of his right leg.

"It was the day I bled," Wedge sang.

Just a few feet from the waterfront at the Natchez Trace Wilderness Preserve in Lewis County, the duo were one of eight pairings, mixing a successful Nashville songwriter with a veteran from the U.S. Armed Forces.

The retreat was developed specifically as a non-clinical therapy session for the veterans who are all diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Simultaneously, the gathering serves as an opportunity for the celebrated songwriters to give back by volunteering their expertise in composition to help the servicemen and women compose their own original pieces.

Known as Operation Song, the Tennessee-grown nonprofit organization is slowly gaining a foothold across the nation. Since 2012, Operation Song has led to the composition of 600 songs with veterans from WWII to those currently serving. To participate, veterans need no musical background, only a desire to tell their story, the organization says.

The organization holds weekly workshops in Middle Tennessee and retreats across the country. Last year, Operation Song received a 2018 Hands on Nashville Strobel Volunteer Award for Civic Group of the Year.

Enlisting five days after his high school graduation, Wedge spent a total of nine years in the Navy. He now lives Loretto, a city in neighboring Lawrence County.

"I joined the Navy when I was 17," Wedge said. "My dad refused to sign the paperwork, so I got my sister to sign it."

After boot camp, he started out operating radios and then applied for navigation school where he was accepted. Wedge went on to make Petty Officer 1st Class in an time unheard four years and 11 months.

Now, in the pictures surroundings of southern Middle Tennessee, Wedge was right back in Vietnam.

"They said where we were going and the hair just stood up on my arms," Wedge said. "I just knew it. I felt it coming. I am fortunate that I still got my guys out of it. None of them died. That was my job."

Decades later, Wedge wrote a collection of lyrics, encouraged by his late wife just months before she passed away.

"On the 27th of August, I sat down and wrote this in about an hour," Wedge said. "I handed to her, and she said, 'Record it.' She loved it. I have never written a song before. I am impressed in myself in how this came out. 'Just Another Day,' comes from a sermon that I preached in my church.

"After the service, some of the members of the congregation came up and said that it would make a good title to a song, and that is how it started. Since I have wrote it, I have wanted to hear it. I could feel the rhythm and now it will be complete."

Unfortunately, arthritis has kept him from picking up an instrument and composing the music himself. But Vandiver, an exclusive staff songwriter for Dick James Music, Little Big Town Music, Malaco Music, and Talbot Music, was there to lend a helping hand.

"I have been fortunate enough to do this in the past, but it is always such a humbling experience to hear what these fellas have got through and how they want to put that experience out into words and music," Vandiver said. "I am honored to be a part of it. I always go back a changed person. It is emotional. It is very deep."

The Oak Ridge Boys, Tim McGraw, Lonestar and Bill Vasser have all recorded his songs but, the songsmith says Operation Song comes with its own sense of accomplishment.

"That is a thrill, but I can tell you this is much more meaningful," Vandiver said. "The songs of mine that are played on the radio are special for me, but this comes from a special place and that is why I do it."

Within minutes of first meeting one another, Wedge and Vasser were working on the new song.

"When we first met last night, we were strangers," Vandiver said. "But now we are the best of friends. The co-writing experiences, especially when you bring out yourself in it, it is vulnerable. It makes you feel a little more complete and it is really a satisfying experience that you don't get from any other interpersonal action. Music is the magic that brings us together to do that. I hope it is something that I always get to do. We were strangers less than 24-hours ago, and we have shared some of our deepest emotions since then."

Under the same pavilion, secluded from the rest of the song writers camped out in a nearby cabin donated to the effort by the campground's director, the two ate their lunch sharing stories from their lives.

For Wedge, who did much of the talking, that included coming home to find his house burned down, getting hit by a car, putting a new roof on a garage with only one leg and letting go to his wife, Nancy, who passed away months earlier.

"It is very fulfilling," Wedge said. "It is very gratifying to see someone who you have never met before that has the experience for something that I am a novice at. I have tried many times to write a song but nothing ever happened."

The retreat marked the second successful Operation Song gathering in southern Middle Tennessee, made possible by the support of Thunderhill Raceway Park owner Sam French and Executive Director of Natchez Trace Wilderness Preserve and Campground Carolyn Strickland.

"I grew up in the world of music," said David Kent, whose song "Austin," was recorded by Blake Shelton. "I have been in bands since I was 12. I have played around the world with hit bands and written famous songs in Nashville. There has never been anything as rewarding an experience than Operation Song. As songwriters we have to dig deep to write about our personal experiences and eventually you run out. Coming to this, there is so much meat on the bone that you have to back off. It's all there and you have to figure out how best to work with it."

Other participating songwriters included Don Goodman, George Teren and Bob Ragen.

"You can't cure PTSD," Goodman said in and interview with Tennessee Crossroads. "It's a mental disorder. The spawn of Satan. But we can give them a way to step out, to leave it alone and accept the fact they are not the only one going through it. Then, when you play it for the other guys, it's therapy for them too because suddenly they realize they are not the only ones going through it."

The weekend retreat culminated with each duo performing their songs and recording the completed works.

After hosting the therapeutic gathering for a second consecutive year, retreat organizer L.D. Cornelius, a graduate of a weekly workshop in Murfreesboro, said he is happy to return the program to the region for another year.

Cornelius, a Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient from Lawrenceburg, has participated in nearly a dozen similar sessions, watching more than 50 veterans heal through the collaboration process; helping veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I am Vietnam veteran," Cornelius said. "I worked so hard, and it was buried inside of me. It took a real sad feeling out of me and gave me something that I could walk away with.

"All the songs here are different, but they all kind of told the same story."

Operation Song was so good to him, he decided it was time to give something back.

The Department of Veterans Affairs has repeatedly reported that an average of 20 veterans, including active duty service members, succumb to suicide each day. The office has previously reported that of those 20.6 suicides each day, 16.8 were veterans and 3.8 were active-duty service members and reservists. That is a total of to 6,132 veterans and 1,387 service members each year.

"When they do this, it is better than any drug you could ever take," Cornelius said. "The VA can give you some drugs. But they can't give you what we have right here."

Veterans who want to participate in Operation Song should simply ask their TVHS primary care provider, mental health specialist or social worker for a consult. Find out more by visiting www.operationsong.org.

Call the organization at (844) 967-7664.

©2019 The Daily Herald (Columbia, Tenn.)

Visit The Daily Herald (Columbia, Tenn.) at www.columbiadailyherald.com

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