Tim O’Brien’s gut-wrenching short story “The Things They Carried” evokes the pain of carrying a weight that can never be made lighter. Much as Lieutenant Jimmy Cross tries to shed the weight of the unrequited love for Martha by destroying pictures of her or his letters she had returned to him, he can never lighten his load. When members of his platoon die, he not only carries the heaviness of their deaths on his shoulders — he fears he has caused them because he’s distracted by his thoughts of Martha — he also now carries a love he cannot forget no matter how hard he tries. O’Brien’s story captures the ways that soldiers tote the burden of trauma that war lays on their shoulders and in their souls.
O’Brien never asks spiritual questions in his stories, so he never ponders the ways that music or art or literature can redeem or transform the soldiers’ pain. On her aptly titled new album, Rifles & Rosary Beads, Mary Gauthier gathers 11 songs that she co-wrote over the last four years with wounded veterans in the SongwritingWith: Soldiers retreats. These songs not only name the things that these soldiers carried and continue to carry, but also provide vessels for naming and transforming the trauma they carry. In the title track, which she wrote with Joe Costello, who entered the Army at 23, the singer delivers the plainspoken truth that “you hold onto what you need” whether it's weapons you can use to defend yourself or to kill others, a spiritual object that offers solace to your soul, or drugs like “Vicodin or morphine” that deaden the pain of the trauma. The choice becomes even starker when the singer looks in the mirror and is frightened by what he sees: “I don’t recognize what I see/A stranger with his hands/Brother, I’m not that man.” “Soldiering On,” written with Jennifer Marino, who entered the Marines at 27, opens with spare strums of the guitar, creating a chamber-like atmosphere that opens into a martial cadence that echoes the action of soldiering on — marching on through battles in war — “suck it up, shut it down, it don’t matter how you feel/Mission first, just drive on, a soldier’s a cog inside a wheel.” Yet, the solidarity of the unit dies on the battlefield and doesn’t follow you off the field: “what saves you in the battle/Can kill you at home.” No matter the sacrifice to your soul, though, you just keep soldiering on, through pain, grief, nightmares, because it’s what you’ve been taught to do.
We often focus so much on the lives of veterans returning from combat zones and their trauma, we forget those who “serve unseen” and whose world changes drastically once the veterans return. The aching violin and propulsive guitars of “The War after the War” — written with Beth Nielsen Chapman, Ashleigh Smith, Robin Kaufmann, Rebecca Sakaki, April Rodriguez, Ximena Rozo, and Christina Coyle — hauntingly evoke the hidden silence with which the ones left behind endure once a veteran returns home. Pointedly and poignantly, the singer asks, “Who’s gonna care for the ones who care for the ones who went to war?/Landmines in the living room, eggshells on the floor/I lost myself in the shadow of your honor and your pain/You stare out the window as our dreams go down the drain/Invisible, the war after the war.” With Brandy Davidson, who entered the Army at 18, Gauthier delivers a harmonica-fueled blues-inflected waltz-like tune about sexual harassment by fellow soldiers. In “Iraq,” the soldier signs up to do her service but learns too late that the enemy is not “in Iraq”: “Soldiers bartered and traded/Trading favors for favors in the sand and dirt/What I wouldn’t give them, they’d try to take/And when I refused them, they made me pay/It was so hard to see until it attacked/But my enemy wasn’t Iraq.” “Stronger Together” — written by Gauthier, Ashley Cleveland, Debbi Chapman, Gina Canaday, Sissy Moore, Rebekah Gorsuch, Amanda Beth, and Sarah Dooley — closes the album with a bright anthem to the sisterhood and to the power that comes from togetherness in the face of lives torn apart by war.
Rifles & Rosary Beads gives veterans and their spouses a voice, a chance to find in song the words that foster growth in the midst of trauma. The songs give the veterans an opportunity to name the things they continue to carry with them once the wars are done, recognizing that the wars within them are never finished. Gauthier and her co-writers deliver an album of songs that momentarily make the burdens of these men and women lighter, for in these songs they’ve found the care and empathy of a listening stranger who sits not in judgment but embraces in love.
Mary Gauthier and I chatted recently about her new album.
Where did you come up with the album title?
Gauthier: I feel like it was one of the most poignant titles we had written. The song covered a lot of ground. And it would make folks wonder what is Gauthier up to now. (Laughs.)
The cover is stunning. Who did the art?
Well, the cover was inspired by a No Depression cover. The hands on the cover were taken from a watercolor by Howard Rains.
Tell me a little about the process of writing with wounded combat veterans in the SongwritingWith: Soldiers program.
Darrell Scott is the one who got me involved. He’d just come back from one of these retreats, started by Darden Smith, and he called me and told me I needed to get involved with this. I was terrified; I didn’t know anything about the military. Turns out, though, that I could just sit with them and listen and help them articulate their feelings and experience in these songs. These songs were written over a four-and-a-half-year period. There are about a dozen or so soldiers at each retreat and four songwriters. Each soldier gets to co-write a song with a songwriter; three songs each in two days. I got to sit with them and ask them to tell me what their lives are like. What was your service like? Is there something you want to talk about? As I listen I might hear a tune or a theme. I might noodle around on the guitar as we’re talking. It doesn’t take long before a theme or tune starts to emerge. The song starts to arise. They discover quickly that I’m not sitting in judgment but listening in empathy.
How did you choose the songs for this album?
I had around 50 songs I had to choose from. I picked a handful that told their stories. I wanted to pick one by a female soldier, for example, and one by the wives of soldiers, as well as those going through post-traumatic growth.
Post-traumatic growth? Can you talk a little about how music offers a way of moving into and through this growth?
Well, we like to use the phrase post-traumatic growth rather than the word healing because healing implies that the trauma is gone. It’s not. The PTSD story is a difficult story. We try to get to the core of what the solider wants to say in the song. We go there — to music — for hope, for empathy, not to feel alone: a lot of reasons, all of them spiritual. The big word is empathy. In trauma, what happened is so violent and horrible. There’s an ineffability: Music helps to articulate something that there is no human word for. In general, we get a song that tells us that we aren’t the only ones feeling this. These songs gave these soldiers, as one of them said, the hope they needed not to commit suicide; the hope they needed to get help. It’s alchemy. Pain is alchemized by a song when a song hits us at the right place.
What’s the story behind “Stronger Together,” one of the album’s most poignant songs?
The song was written with the spouses of the men who work in EOD: explosive ordinance deployment. All branches of service have EOD. The soldiers don’t do it for the money because they don’t get aid any more to do it. It’s a form of service they are called to do. These wives knew their spouses could be blown to bits. It’s like being married to a cop times 10,000. They told me they do it by supporting each other, by being stronger together.
How has your songwriting changed over the years?
I had to work through my own trauma. Songwriting gave me a way to do that by finding words that could articulate it. When I met these veterans, my own experience gave us a mutual understanding of trauma. I have a skill set I have obtained working through my songs. It allowed me not to be terrified by the veterans’ trauma. We weep; let’s let that out. For a lot of them, just seeing a stranger freed them, and they’re shocked that someone cares. I tend to want to separate art from commercial hit-making. Art is committed to telling difficult stories. Songwriting saved my life. This art form has given me more than I can ever give back to it. And that’s how I feel, too, about working with these veterans. I didn’t know about any of this four-and-a-half-years ago. They’ve given me more that I feel like I’ve given them. I love these people.
You’re working on a book now. Who are some of the authors who’ve influenced you?
Flannery O’Connor stands out. I’m drawn to the writers who push the limits. I like books that challenge me. I love Oliver Sacks. I’ve got all these books on writing: Stephen King, William Zinsser. James Baldwin is another writer. I like books that blow shit up. I want to tell the truth.
Meghan Counighan - Army, entered at 27 – “Got Your Six,” “Brothers”
Josh Geartz - Army, entered at 23 – “Still On The Ride”
Joe Costello - Army, entered at 23 – “Rifles & Rosary Beads”
Jennifer Marino - Marines, entered at 27 – “Soldiering On,” “Morphine 1-2”
Jamie Trent - Navy, entered at 20 – “Bullet Holes In The Sky”
James D. Dooley - Marines, entered at 24 – “It’s Her Love”
Britney Pfad - Army, entered at 18 – “Got Your Six,” “Brothers”
Brandy R. Davidson - Army, entered at 18 – “Iraq”
Co/writers/spouses of service members on “The War After The War”
April Rodriguez, Ashleigh Smith, Christina Coyle, Rebecca Sakaki, Robin Kaufmann, Ximena Rozo
Co/writers/spouses of service members on “Stronger Together”
Amanda Beth, Gina Canaday, Debbi Chapman, Rebekah Gorsuch, Sarah Dooley, Sissy Moore