Casey Willett was an Army combat medic for six years: one year in Camp Hovey in South Korea, one year in Fort Riley, Kansas, and the remaining four at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Six years that left a lasting impact on his life.
"I was injured by a land mine while I was in South Korea. I took shrapnel in my left leg — didn't lose the leg, but I've had a lot of issues with the leg since," the 42-year-old Ooltewah resident says, before adding that he also cared for patients injured by the 9/11 terrorist attack while he worked in Walter Reed. Although he officially left the Army in 2002, he dealt with its aftermath for 17 years: PTSD.
If you go
› What: Cam Busch Endowed Arts for Health Lecture Series
› Where: Hunter Museum of American Art, 10 Bluff View
› When: 5 p.m. reception, 6 p.m. program Thursday, April 11
› Admission: $50 general admission or $40 active and retired military
› For more information: 423-495-4438
Operation Song meets every Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. at Chattanooga Lifestyle Center, 325 Market St. (formerly the Erlanger Lifestyle Center.)
"With the land mine, there are certain noises I can't tolerate anymore. I don't go around fireworks displays. I try to avoid them if possible, because the explosions are associated with a bad memory. Certain smells still give me instant headaches after 9/11. I had dreams about the land mine, wondered why it happened to me, that kind of thing," he explains.
Then he heard about a group of veterans meeting with Operation Song, a form of music therapy. Willett was familiar with it — he'd seen music therapy put to use at Walter Reed when soldiers were starting to return from Afghanistan.
"I'm a big music person; I love music!" he says enthusiastically. "No matter what mood you are going through, you can find music to make you feel better or relate to how you are feeling."
So Willet looked up Operation Song's leaders online, Don Goodman and Steve Dean, saw what they were about and showed up at one of the Wednesday meetings.
"It's the best therapy I've ever done," the veteran says.
Gently coaxing veterans into volunteering their stories, Nashville songwriters Goodman and Dean turn pent-up memories into emotional music. The songs are recorded by a Nashville vocalist for records that become living histories of soldiers' service.
Dean will share how this music therapy has changed not only the lives of veterans, but his own as well, when he is the featured speaker at the 19th annual Cam Busch Endowed Arts for Health Lecture Series on Thursday at Hunter Museum of American Art.
CHI Memorial and Hunter Museum are co- hosting the lecture series highlighting the importance of arts therapy in healing.
Even if you don't recognize Dean's name, you surely know his music if you are a country- music fan. He wrote "Watching You," the song that shot Rodney Atkins to stardom. "Watching You" was the most-played song on country radio in 2007 and named Country Air Check's Song of the Decade in 2016. Billboard listed it No. 37 in its Top 100 Greatest of All Time Country Songs.
Dean has had his songs cut by a who's who of country stars: Oak Ridge Boys, Alabama, George Strait, Lee Greenwood, Reba McEntire and Barbara Mandrell, to name a few.
Dean and Goodman travel across Monteagle to Chattanooga every Wednesday to lead Operation Song. Goodman is another songwriter whose music has helped shape country music: "Angels Among Us," recorded by Alabama; "Ol' Red," recorded by Blake Shelton; "Feelings," a Conway Twitty-Loretta Lynn duet; and "Starting Over Again," cut by Steve Wariner.
Goodman enlisted Dean's help for a retreat held in Chattanooga in July 2014. At that time, Bobbie Allison-Standefer, now Operation Song's director, was trying to bring the music therapy to town, which happened in May 2015.
Dean says they started the Chattanooga program with six veterans. When those six graduated, six more came in. Now they average between 30 and 36 at their weekly Wednesday meetings.
"Don is a master at interviewing people. You really have to gain the trust of a veteran. He asks them about their lives growing up, what their fathers did, where they lived, how they came to enlist. As more answers come out, he will land on a question that will provide an opening," says Dean.
Dean says the veterans' ages span World War II to Korea to Vietnam to Iraq/Afghanistan.
"In the first couple of weeks, eye contact was hard to get, and everybody was pretty nervous," he recalls. "As a few weeks went by, we got our first veteran to open up and talk about his first tour in Vietnam. He was also a poet. He said he'd written some poems, and Don asked him to read them. He just said, 'I can't.' He asked Don to read them.
"It just leveled us all with what he had to say. One line said, 'Sometimes young Jerry turns out the light, while old Jerry lies here awake all night.'"
Willett says he didn't open up until his second week at Operation Song.
"The first week, I was looking around the room thinking I had no business being there — the first day I went there was a World War II veteran, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq veterans, and I thought 'I don't even belong in the room with these guys.' But I stayed because they made me feel welcome.
"It was an instant connection with the people in the room. It was like I found my people again. When you get out of the military, you are always kind of looking for that brotherhood you felt in the military, and I felt it almost instantly in that room."
When Willett did open up, he first talked about the land-mine explosion.
"I hadn't really gone into much detail about treating patients from 9/11, other than with my family. I had never talked to strangers about that before."
Opening up after more than a decade of repressing those memories, and the group's acceptance, reassured Willett it was "OK to feel the feelings I was feeling; it was OK to talk about it. When I was in, you didn't talk about those things. That was just part of the job, and the mindset was you kept it to yourself."
He says he told his story over the course of two to three weeks.
"When I first told them, 'I don't think I have a story,' they said, 'You didn't go to war. War came to you.'"
Willett says he was "amazed" by the thoroughness of Goodman and Dean to make sure their songs were accurate.
"If there was something that caught their eye, they would go back and say let's go a little deeper into this. Never once was there a single word written that wasn't talked with me about and shown to me and approved by me."
Willett's song, "War Is Hell," is on "Operation Song Vol. 3." Its message describes how war can happen in places other than battlefields of Korea or Vietnam.
"Operation Song made me open up about things, not keep everything inside like I did in the past. Anybody who is in that room, I know I can text or call and say I need something and they will be there. It's given me another family, a military family, a brotherhood, I've been looking for since I got out. It's been life-changing for me," says the veteran.
THE IMPACT OF ARTS THERAPY
"We are excited to offer this year's program with a focus on the impact of music," says Chyela Rowe, CHI Memorial Arts in Healthcare Program coordinator and a registered drama therapist.
"Songwriting, music education and dance can transform the way life's experiences are expressed and understood. Songs have the power to inform our memories and feelings in ways other forms of community do not."
In fact, a survey by the National Intrepid Center of Excellence, which is the outpatient clinic for treatment of traumatic brain injuries at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, ranked art therapy among the top five most helpful techniques used to treat veterans.
Studies have revealed proof that arts therapy can improve symptoms related to physical and mental disorders and reduce pain and stress during recovery to promote the healing process.
Rowe says Memorial has had an arts and health care presence due, in large part, to the Cam Busch series informing the community on how the arts can impact health care.
Rowe says the hospital has a collection of more than 500 works of original art placed around the hospital for employees and patients.
Memorial's well-known music therapy program gained attention and was influenced by the late Jay Craven. The professional clarinetist volunteered innumerable hours playing his instrument at bedsides, in hallways and waiting rooms to soothe anxious patients and their families.
"Jay Craven helped start Music at Memorial," says Rowe. "We now have a group of volunteer musicians who play in the lobby. We have baby grand pianos in the hospital that musicians will come play; we have musicians bring guitars and banjos to play.
"We have groups who will come in and sing or perform in the lobby areas. Chattanooga Ballet comes for performances. They are creating an original piece to perform at Thursday's event during the reception hour."
Rowe says arts therapy is used in cancer centers. Memorial has a program in which patients have an option to use an "intervention menu."
"It started out as pain-care treatment, trying to help patients have options besides pain medications. Now they can have pet therapy come in, bring their own pet to the hospital for their comfort, or they could request a musician come in. There is a variety of options."
Dean says he will perform one of his songs as well as at least one veteran's song during Thursday's benefit while talking about Operation Song. Due to the music therapy program's emphasis, veterans and active military are offered a discount on tickets.
Purchase tickets online at memorial.org/healing arts or call 423-495-4438.
Contact Susan Pierce at email@example.com or 423-757-6284.