Songwriting retreat helps soldiers find peace

By Michele Chan Santos


Taking the traumatic experience of battle and turning it into song, or transforming the heartbreaking separation between a soldier and his loved ones by setting it to music, is part of the magic that happens during a "SongwritingWith:Soldiers" retreat.

In this unique weekend experience, soldiers meet one-on-one with songwriters. The next two-day immersion retreat will take place at Cedarbrake Catholic Retreat Center in Belton April 26-28.

In October 2012, Cedarbrake hosted its first "SongwritingWith:Soldiers" event. During the retreat, 10 military veterans and their families joined songwriters Darden Smith, Radney Foster and Jay Clementi. Most of the soldiers who participated had recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan. Some suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury.

At the fall retreat, "With bravery, trust and open hearts, the soldiers rose to the challenge, co-writing 10 songs," said Mary Judd, executive director of SongwritingWith:Soldiers.

SongwritingWith:Soldiers was founded by musician Darden Smith. Smith and Foster wrote the well-known song "Angel Flight," about the plane that brings home soldiers killed in the line of duty.

The first time Darden Smith wrote songs with soldiers was on a retreat in Colorado, as part of a program with LifeQuest Transitions in Colorado Springs.

On the website, Smith wrote, "The soldiers –– men and women from all four branches of the U.S. military –– had stories to tell and often no outlet to express them. Their experiences in war zones were so far beyond what civilians could imagine that they sometimes couldn’t communicate what they were feeling –– what it’s like to have been ambushed in Ramadi, to go on patrol in Baghdad, to witness, and survive so much destruction. With a guitar in hand and open minds and ears, we put words and music to some of what they’d been through."

The Cedarbrake retreat weekend is free for soldiers and their spouses. The number of participants is kept small to ensure a private, quiet weekend. The soldiers who participate are generally referred by local organizations that serve active duty military and veterans, Judd said. Underwriting sponsors are the Bob Woodruff Foundation (co-founded by ABC news reporter Bob Woodruff after he sustained serious injuries while covering the Iraq War in 2006), the ASCAP Foundation and Lockheed Martin. Darden Smith will be at the April weekend and is gathering other songwriters to join him.

During the October retreat, "A new kind of courage was summoned," Judd wrote. "As the weekend unfolded, so did the stories. Friendships were sparked and deep connections were made." Recordings of the 10 songs are online at

The serene, quiet atmosphere of Cedarbrake helps create a space where the soldiers and songwriters can connect. There are no televisions or laptops, and everyone spends Friday and Saturday night at Cedarbrake.

Initially, there is some hesitation, Judd said.

"The soldiers are not musicians and not sure what to expect. They are not necessarily excited to go somewhere and start talking," Judd said. "The skill and compassion of the songwriters is extraordinary. They are really able to put people at ease."

"They are usually able to take something that has been painful and emotional and put it into a different expression," Judd said. "You can see the soldiers feel relieved and really listened to."

In a book she created after the October retreat, Judd wrote, "We are deeply thankful to the soldiers who were willing to join us, to share their stories and to create songs and connections that will ripple out into the world. We believe that stories need to be told and that music has the power to heal."

Brian Egan, the director of Cedarbrake, said he was touched that the SongwritingWith:Soldiers organizers asked to have their event at Cedarbrake, which is owned and supported by the Diocese of Austin.

Soldiers of all faiths are welcome at the SongwritingWith: Soldiers retreats.

"One of the joys of our center is to bring healing to people," Egan said. "For those who serve our country, this is a great way that we can thank them, to offer this venue so they can find peace and serenity. We are about bringing people healing and mending wounds in people’s lives."

Many volunteers help with the weekend. "Let Us Do the Cooking" catering company in Killeen helped with the food.

"It’s just extremely well-organized, to make it as easy as possible for the soldiers to feel welcome," Egan said.

Judd said her organization hopes to offer four retreats this year. They are fundraising to cover the costs of each retreat. For more information, visit

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