Mary Gauthier Uses Songwriting to Help Veterans
By Juli Thanki
Two decades into her music career, co-writing is nothing new for Mary Gauthier.
But some of her most powerful work has come in collaborating with men and women who’ve never written songs before.
For the last four years, Gauthier has participated in SongwritingWith: Soldiers, a nonprofit organization that pairs veterans, active-duty service members and their spouses with professional songwriters to write songs about their experiences. The songs often focus on deployment, combat and the return home, and for many participants, being able to share their stories (sometimes for the first time) in a safe environment can be cathartic and healing.
“Mental health is something that we are constantly tangling with in two ways,” said Allison Jaslow, an Army vet and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a nonpartisan veterans advocacy organization. “Not only finding the right ways to address and treat it — which aren’t necessarily traditional therapies; sometimes it’s alternative therapies like songwriting — but it’s also trying to break through the stigma of actually getting yourself help. It’s not easy to share, it’s not easy to talk about … you don’t want to ask for help. But it’s not a sign of weakness.”
On Jan. 26, Gauthier will release “Rifles and Rosary Beads,” an 11-song album composed entirely of songs that came from SongwritingWith: Soldiers retreats.
She was initially apprehensive about getting involved with the program, as she has no military experience and wasn’t sure if she’d be able to connect with the veterans. “But what I do have experience with is trauma, and I have a lot of experience with addiction,” she said. “So having been in therapy for a long, long time, having dealt with my own addictions for most of my life, I was able to sit with people who were struggling with mental health issues and not be afraid. … I can sit and listen and offer empathy and non-judgment and then turn it into music because that’s what I’ve done my whole career. … I’ve always used songs as a way of saving my own damn life.”
The soldiers and songwriters aren’t trying to write hit songs or make political statements; their only goal is to tell the truth. Said Gauthier, “That kind of writing works beautifully with veterans who are trying to find words for something I think is ineffable.”
One of the songs on the album, “Still on the Ride,” was written with disabled Army Sgt. Joshua Geartz, who was contemplating suicide when his wife brought him to a songwriting retreat as a “hail Mary,” Gauthier said. He knew when, where and how he was going to end his life, but participating in the writing sessions gave him a first flicker of hope.
A year after they wrote “Still on the Ride,” they performed it on the Grand Ole Opry stage, and Geartz got a standing ovation. After that, he rode his wheelchair 422 miles (for the average 22 veterans each day who take their own lives) and raised $20,000 for SongwritingWith: Soldiers. Now, he’s not planning his death, Gauthier says; he’s planning his next ride: “He’s renewed in a way that’s got him invested in being of service again.”
Some veterans are reluctant to discuss their emotions when they arrive at the songwriting retreats. Being vulnerable, said Jaslow, is in “direct contrast to military culture.”
However, their mindset often changes when they learn that their songs have the power to connect with others wrestling with the same issues.
Said Gauthier, “When the veteran realizes the song can help other veterans, all they want to do is get it out in the world, and not for their own glory. … The whole process is one of the best things I get to do.”
The making of “Rifles and Rosary Beads” was captured in a short documentary with the same name by filmmakers Joshua Britt and Neilson Hubbard. It will premiere in late January at Cinema on the Bayou, a film festival in Lafayette, La. The film also will be shown when Gauthier plays the Franklin Theatre on Feb. 23. Tickets ($27-$37) are on sale now via franklintheatre.com.