By Andre Carter
Some say music is a universal language. Voices of Valor is showing tunes are also medicinal.
Six one-syllable words mark the beginning of the renaissance in Noel Dunn’s life. The music verse, which was crafted by the Vietnam veteran, is the first in “Standing,” a song written by a group of military vets through a support program named Voices of Valor.
Co-founded in 2011 by Brian Dallow and Rena Fruchter after a year of research and consultation with psychiatrists, the program pairs military veterans with professional musicians and psychology mentors in 90-minute settings of six to 10 member groups. The vets share their experiences and work with the musicians to create songs that shine a light on their lives since returning home.
“The veterans begin the process of healing,” says Fruchter. “The process of writing a song provides a safe and comfortable forum. Many of the veterans have learned they can communicate through music, and some have learned great confidence from singing in a recording studio. One veteran said, ‘If I can overcome my fear of singing in a studio, what else am I capable of doing?’ The songs have a broad range of style and theme, from some that are very dark and introspective, to others that are very hopeful and positive.”
Last fall a total of 24 participants spread across three groups went through Voices of Valor. At the end of the seventh session, the songs were recorded in a studio and then followed by a CD release party. Since the New Jersey-based program’s inception, 35 songs have been written, and an album, “Voices of Valor: Coming Home — Songs of American Veterans,” which includes 13 songs, was released in November 2015. Included on the roster of musicians is the 19-time Grammy-nominated guitarist Julio Fernandez of the group, Spyro Gyra.
“Each session is essentially a brainstorming session,” says Dallow. “We encourage the veterans to write down their experiences and to bring their notes to the next session. All of them are encouraged to share their notes with the group, which leads to discussion and talk of similar experiences.”
The discussions help create strong bonds between the participants, the musicians and the psychology mentors. The role of the musicians is to help shape the lyrics, discuss the structure of a song and assist with developing a style. The role of the psychology mentor is to keep watch on the group, identify potential issues, and perhaps take aside a participant to suggest a direction that is less volatile.
For Dunn and the men in his group, “Standing” provided an outlet for them to talk about the feelings of loneliness they felt when they came home. “After several months of 24/7 stress and trauma we bring them back into civilian life and expect they will simply adjust,” says Dallow. “The stress of finding employment, limited opportunities to discuss traumatic experiences with peers who understand, and feelings of isolation from structured lifestyles are just some of the issues that contribute to high rates of domestic violence, suicidal and homicidal ideation, clinical depression and anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, homelessness, chronic illness, and other physical and mental conditions.”
Dunn, now 65, fit into more than one of these categories. After serving in Vietnam from 1970-72 as an acting Army sergeant, when he got out and began job hunting he was turned down for three jobs. He eventually landed a job with the United States Postal Service, where he worked for 40 years before retiring. He seemingly had a great life— married with two sons— but he was haunted by the memories of Vietnam; every face and every name kept returning to him. He began drinking to self-medicate himself from the physical pain of combat and struggled with alcohol abuse. Tired of the life he was living, he walked out on Christine, his wife of more than 30 years, in 2012. Unable to find a job, he ended up homeless on the streets of Florida, before coming home to New Jersey and finding his way to a Veterans hospital. Previously diagnosed with PTSD, he attended his first Voices of Valor session in 2013.
“I lost all kinds of emotions,” he says. “You could stick me with pins and it wouldn’t bother me.”
All those years he had been seeking therapeutic help. He saw psychiatrists, psychologists and sponsors. Nobody could hit on his problems. Then he attended a Voices of Valor session. The leaders explained to Dunn that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, drinking and flashbacks all contributed to prolonging his PTSD symptoms. “When you’re dealing with PTSD veterans, we’re angry,” he says. “We’re isolated. We’re trying to get in touch with ourselves. Sometimes, someone in the group would feel ‘you don’t know what I’m talking about because you weren’t in the military.’ Any time that would happen, [the mentors] would know how to get you out of that military stance you were falling back into.”
Dallow and Fruchter have seen breakthroughs in these group sessions on multiple occasions with participants opening in ways that have surprised them. “They have realized they are able to communicate effectively with non-veterans,” Dallow says. “We attribute this to the veterans’ feelings of trust and respect for our musicians and psychology mentors. In numerous cases, important and powerful issues have been discussed for the first time, having never been revealed even to therapists.”
Fruchter says sometimes participating in a VOV program is the first time some members have spoken openly about their ordeal, even though many have been in therapy for a while. “One therapist told us that she sees more progress and growth in an individual VOV session than in a month of private therapy,” Fruchter added.
Working on “Standing,” and being asked to sing the song solo, began to loosen the shackles that had been tying Dunn down. “I was told I have a baritone voice,” he says. “The song made me take a step forward in my life. I don’t fear anything, and I’m not afraid to walk through any door. It’s not like I have to stay on guard or on point as a soldier anymore. I can let that go completely and just be a normal person, and I’m enjoying life.”
Success stories like Dunn’s are exactly what Dallow and Fruchter were hoping to achieve and bring to the attention of the public. They say many people hearing the songs for the first time are overwhelmed by the power of the music and the lyrics, and how open the veterans are at expressing their feelings.
Since starting at Voices of Valor, Dunn quit drinking in 2013 and began working on reconciling with Christine. He still attends support meetings to assist with his sobriety. He lives at the VA New Jersey Housing Program Healthcare Campus facility for homeless veterans in Lyons and volunteers his time with various veterans programs. “The old me is so far behind, I forgot how I was,” he says, adding that another part of “Standing” that he wrote was dedicated to his wife and the love they once had. “The song is very emotional for me now. I spoke to some ROTC children and the tears just started flowing. I said, ‘You’ll have to excuse me for a moment because it’s been over 40 years since I had emotions, where I could feel again.’ I said those tears feel good and I’m going to enjoy them for a moment.”
Noel Dunn, in 1971, and his group mates co-wrote two more songs after “Standing.” He has seen a progression in their moods to feelings of happiness on the third song. “We all seem to feel what’s going on at the moment with all of us. We’re growing farther away from the barriers that kept us from being strong or being human beings again.”