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Psalms of a Soldier: Songwriter helps veterans heal with music, reflection and collaboration

The Advocate - 6/17/2024

Jun. 16—David St. Romaine belted out a guttural riff as he plucked the strings of his guitar.

His fingers danced across the chords, strumming the pain, struggles and triumphs of each of the men and women sitting in a circle around him.

St. Romaine, a singer and songwriter who spent more than two decades performing on stages across America, turned in his microphone nearly five years ago and began using music to minister to the traumas of military veterans.

That's when he founded Songs of Survivors, a nonprofit aimed at helping veterans cope with a myriad of life struggles through songwriting. The organization crisscrossed the state recently, staging songwriting workshops in Monroe, Lafayette and Baton Rouge.

"This work has really impacted my life. It's really changed my life," St. Romaine told the group of former servicemen and women that gathered during a May 16 jam session inside the old home of former Louisiana Gov. Jimmie Davis. "It's been a very fulfilling experience for me to be able to do this."

About 15 veterans traveled from different pockets of the state to sit in on the daylong workshop at the lakeside ranch house that sits in the shadow of the present-day Governor's Mansion in downtown Baton Rouge.

It was an artistic exercise in exorcising the demons that many men and women grapple with during their military service or after they separate from the Armed Forces. Many of those who attended the May 16 workshop in Baton Rouge were on the road to recovery after intense stints with drug and alcohol addiction. Some suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, and others were hampered by debilitating injuries they suffered while serving their country.

The group shared deeply personal stories that centered on childhood traumas, their time in the ranks as well as their respective journeys following discharge. Some had endured homelessness, a few dealt with thoughts of suicide, while others lost their freedom when their lives spiraled into tailspin. One of the participants spent decades in prison for a crime fueled by drug addiction.

Through the grief, loss and shattered dreams, the veterans managed to pick up the pieces of their lives through treatment.

Wayne Jackson said he battled with addiction for more than 40 years. He went through multiple detox and recovery programs. It wasn't until he began a 12-step program at the Townsend rehab center in Covington that he finally shared that he was molested in childhood. The revelation came through a process of personal inventory that he described as "cleaning your closet."

Jackson said it freed him from an anxiety that held him in its grip for much of his life. Now he wants to focus on helping other veterans once he completes the treatment program in Covington.

"I finally let all that out through the counseling where I'm at and I've put that trauma aside," Jackson said of his recovery path. "I'm doing everything I can to improve myself and not go back to where I was. I'm looking forward in life; I'm not looking behind me."

Using the collection of testimonies as his muse, Songs of Survivors' team worked with the veterans to craft a soulful, sonic tale of faith, redemption and finding modern-day angels in the flesh. St. Romaine and his crew of professional songwriters facilitated the participants' ideas to curate a chorus and verses. Susan Mustafa, who co-authored a New York Times bestseller about finding the Zodiac killer in 2014, is a part of that staff. She listened meticulously and massaged the lyrics throughout the process in real time.

The end product of the workshop was a recorded rendition of the group's personal experiences on wax. Travis Frost, a naval veteran from Slidell who plays instruments and has been part of bands, said the workshop was inspirational.

"It was fun. It was definitely an experience," he said. "The fact that it was pieced as part of everybody's story is what made it bigger than anything else. It's not about one person; it wasn't one person's creative mind. It was collaborative."

Amy Vranic, a licensed professional counselor that specializes in treating vets, said the participants could build on the camaraderie from the workshop and use the creative process as a tool in the long run.

"Events like this and using music or any type of artistic expression can be extremely therapeutic because it's a traditional, yet nontraditional outlet," Vranic said. "Instead of just sitting in an office and saying, 'Hey, this is what I'm going through,' this is an actual way to get the story told. And letting it be their own story, not someone else's."

The workshops are a therapeutic release for St. Romaine, who spent more than 20 years in the entertainment industry trying to break through to superstardom as a recording artist. Millions of viewers watched him perform each week when he appeared on USA Network's "Nashville Star" in 2007, placing third in the TV singing competition.

The show took his career to new heights. But after being on the road for years, St. Romaine became frustrated that he still wasn't able to secure a record deal with a major label. He fell into depression and his addictions intensified.

It wasn't until he started using his music to help treat young girls who had been sex trafficked in 2017 that he started down the roads to redemption and sobriety.

A year later, the lieutenant governor introduced him to a pilot program to help military veterans through music. That was the genesis for Songs of Survivors, which St. Romaine launched in 2019.

Over the past five years, he's done workshops across the state helping hundreds of vets purge their souls one note at a time. Describing music as the "most underestimated tool we have at our disposal," St. Romaine said it has the power to shift people's thoughts, feelings and emotions neurologically. The workshops are also designed as a forum for treatment.

"I just want to be able to make some type of impact in veterans' lives in a unique way they've never had before," he said. "We had at least one veteran that said they've never said this in front of anybody before. And that's what we strive for is to bring that space for vulnerability. Just to give them that platform to express these stories in their lives."

To learn more about Songs of Survivors, go to sosmusic.org

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(c)2024 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

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