Not long after his son, U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith, was mortally shot at the U.S. Naval and Marine Reserve Center on July 16, 2015, Tracy Smith was ready to die himself. The grief was simply too much.
Then he heard a song.
And it changed his life.
I pray for Chattanooga
And the ones who guard our lives.
Send love to all the sisters, brothers and wives
People can be taken in a blink of an eye
So I pray for Chattanooga
And the red, blue and white.
The singer? Hunter Wolkonowski, an 18-year-old Winchester, Tenn., musician known as Hunter Girl. Her YouTube song? "Pray for Chattanooga." Someone told Smith to listen.
"It was one of the first things to give me hope," Smith said.
One song led to another. Smith, still suicidal, heard about a group called Operation Song, which meets Wednesdays at the Chattanooga Lifestyle Center on Broad Street. He and his broken heart staggered in.
It, too, changed his life.
They call it "family around the table." In a closed-door conference room, veterans circle up around pushed-together tables — with paper cups of black coffee, Kleenex, open doughnut boxes — and slowly begin telling stories they cannot tell others.
About the wars abroad — Iraq, Afghanistan, WWII, Korea, Vietnam.
About the wars back home — addiction, rage, nightmares, the post- traumatic dragons.
How do you tell your wife about the afternoon you were on patrol with your best friend, the guy who'd die for you, when one moment he's there, then — boom! — he's land-mine gone? How do you tell your mom about having to body-bag his guts and brains? How do you explain to your children why you wake up screaming at night? Or your neighbor the real reason you hate fireworks?
"Words that rattle in your head are like shrapnel," one vet said.
Two dozen U.S. vets will kill themselves today. And tomorrow. And the next day.
Operation Song tries to interrupt that.
There around that table, the vet-to-vet unit is reformed.
The platoon comes back together.
The tribe returns.
And all of it has a soundtrack.
"I wait for them to say the things they can't say," said Don Goodman.
As vets tell their stories, songwriters Goodman and Steve Dean stand nearby, listening. They're two of Nashville's finest; now, instead of writing music for Alabama or Loretta Lynn or Blake Shelton, they write songs for vets.
They hear the lyrics hiding in the stories; they coax the tune out of the nightmare.
Goodman and Dean turn the words of the vets' stories into music.
It's several chords and the truth.
And it's keeping vets alive.
"No telling how many lives you guys have saved," one vet said.
"I wouldn't be here today without Operation Song," Smith said.
Operation Song, started by legendary songwriter Bob Regan in 2012 at a veterans hospital in Murfreesboro, now has groups in Clarksville, Nashville, here. Operation Song has performed at the Washington Mall. Received a standing ovation at the Grand Ole Opry. Had its songs played worldwide on American Forces Radio. (Next Sunday, this column will focus entirely on vets' stories from Operation Song.)
Last year, Chattanooga's Operation Song began meeting with families of the Fallen Five.
"I don't want a sob story," said Cathy Wells, mother of Lance Cpl. Squire "Skip" Wells. "I want people to know I'm mad. I'm pissed. This guy took my son and I'll never have him back."
A few days ago, Wells sat inside that Operation Song conference room as Goodman, Dean and Hunter Girl played the song written about her son.
It's called "Tennessee Blood."
He was only with me for a little while
I miss that smile, Lord I miss my child.
Skip, I'll see you in my dreams
I'll be waiting here for my baby blue Marine.
Maw and Paw, Skip and me
21 years of memories.
The story of a mother's love
Sadly written in Tennessee blood.
As Hunter Girl sang, some folks went silent, even in the room next door.
"Her voice had so much power," Wells said. "I'm surprised the building wasn't resonating and you could hear it outside."
Monday, hear for yourself.
On July 3, Operation Song will be performing at the annual Pops on the River concert. At 5 p.m., Goodman, Dean, Regan, Hunter Girl — she just opened for Alan Jackson — and local vets will take the Coolidge Park stage and perform 13 songs, including those written by Fallen Five families.
"I want you to focus on the something positive in my life, not the worst day of my life," Smith told me.
That's Operation Song.
Not July 16.
"I want to help get the word out on Operation Song to younger veterans," Smith said.
Those who are suicidal, addicted, close to the edge.
Monday night, at Coolidge Park, you'll hear a song.
And it could change your life.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.