By Michael Edward Miller. Photos and video by Adam Brimer
The night before his helicopter crashed, Paul Renner made a new friend.
A pilot from Cleveland, Tennessee, and a 1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Renner rarely got close to other service members during the Vietnam War, but that night was an exception. He met a chief warrant officer, and the two men sat and socialized during the evening before they flew together.
“He was new to the unit,” Renner says. “I had been introduced to him, and that night I just happened to run into him at the officers’ club. He was telling me about his family, showing me pictures of his kids.”
The next morning—Dec. 19, 1968—the two soldiers took off in a helicopter and flew out on a mission to destroy an enemy bridge.
“You hear stories about the hair standing up on the back of your neck, and it truly did on mine that day. I thought something bad was getting ready to happen,” Renner says.
Enemy fire downed the helicopter. Though Renner survived and was rescued, his friend wasn’t so lucky. It was exactly what Renner had feared about making friends.
“I was always pretty much a loner in Vietnam,” he says. “I never wanted to get close to anybody because I never wanted this to happen, where you lose someone or a friend that you’ve made.”
The crash stayed on Renner’s mind for years. “I knew about shell shock and battle fatigue from World War II and some of the things my dad went through, but I didn’t think that would happen to me,” he says.
In particular, the incident haunted his dreams, with vivid details and survivor’s guilt rushing back as he slept.
More than 40 years after the crash, Renner found solace in songwriting. Operation Song is a Nashville-based nonprofit established in 2012 to empower veterans, active-duty military and their families to share their stories musically by pairing professional songwriters with active and veteran military personnel and their loved ones. Through the process of developing a song, memories, hardships and raw emotions come to the forefront.
Bob Regan, founder of Operation Song, is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and an acclaimed guitar player. Several years ago, Regan toured military bases around the world and performed for U.S. troops with the Nashville Songwriters Band.
“It’s sort of our job to help sort out each other’s experiences and make them make sense—give them some meaning.”
“I’m a civilian. I did not serve,” Regan told WUTC 88.1 FM in Chattanooga. “And it just opened my eyes to the age range of the veterans that are serving in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan…the physical injuries, post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injuries. So songwriters are kind of armchair therapists. It’s sort of our job to help sort out each other’s experiences and make them make sense—give them some meaning. So that was my initial idea.”
The music therapy outreach program began working with veterans in the studios of WUTC—the public radio station on the University of Tennessee Chattanooga campus—early in 2016. With the help of Operation Song, Renner composed “Ben’s Last Ride,” a country-rock tune with a dramatic chorus:
That was the day a real soldier died
One was taken, the other survived
Now I have these dreams and we’re back in the sky
Together again on that endless flight
And he’ll be there ’til the day I die.
“You know, I would write a hundred different lines,” Renner says, remembering his sessions with Operation Song. “I’m not a songwriter. Probably never will be. But they sat down with me, and we’d go through the hundred different lines, and we’d pick out maybe 30 that could be placed into a song. And that’s how we arrived at this.”
Renner and other veterans have composed hundreds of similar songs at sessions in Nashville, Murfreesboro, Clarksville and Chattanooga. The Nashville pros have written hits for Keith Urban, Reba McEntire, Blake Shelton and other stars, but they say helping military veterans is the most meaningful work they’ve ever done. Songs they’ve written have been performed at Memorial Day ceremonies in Washington, D.C., and at the Independence Day Pops on the River concert in Chattanooga.
Don Goodman, a Grammy-nominated artist who penned tunes for Lee Greenwood and the country group Alabama, helped Renner come up with “Ben’s Last Ride.” At the songwriting sessions in Chattanooga, several veterans sit together at a table with Goodman and other professionals and reveal things they’ve never told anyone—not even their wives or children.
“Harlan Howard, one of the greatest country singers that ever lived, he once described country music as three chords and the truth,” Goodman says. “Well, when you’re sitting across the table from a guy whose life is one continuous nightmare, the truth hits the table. The truth is the hardest thing. It’s the thing they let go of last.”
Goodman says there are boxes of paper tissues on the table at every meeting, and they go through the boxes during every session.
“To me,” Renner says, “it’s been as beneficial—if not more so—as my actual counseling. There’s something about writing these feelings down. They just keep coming out, and the more we write, the more they come out.”
Chattanooga’s WUTC broadcasts songs—usually recorded with the voice of a professional singer—from the workshops. At the invitation of American Forces Network (AFN) radio, WUTC produced a Memorial Day program featuring segments from Operation Song. The Operation Song Memorial Day Special features interviews with the nonprofit’s creator, with songwriters who work with military veterans putting their stories to music, and with veterans or their loved ones sharing memories.
The special aired on Memorial Day 2016 over AFN to active-duty military and their families worldwide and can be heard online at wutc.org.
Renner’s song, along with others from the Chattanooga sessions, are featured on “Operation Song: Chattanooga Program 2016,” a 14-track album released earlier this year. Goodman and another seasoned Nashville songwriter, Steve Dean, co-wrote all lyrics and music with session participants.
“Writing these songs has been the most eye-opening experience I’ve ever had,” Dean said. “And it’s ongoing, too. There’s no end in sight.”
Operation Song volunteers recently helped write a song with the widow of a U.S. Marine killed during the July 16, 2015, terrorist attack in Chattanooga.
“That morning was any normal morning,” says Lori Wyatt, whose husband, Sgt. David Wyatt, died in the attack in Chattanooga. “He got up, gave me a kiss, and he left. He was running late like any normal morning.”
He loved his country, his friends and family
His brothers in the Corps, his kids and me
Now he lies here in a field of stone
And this mountain town will always be our home
I was blessed to be his wife
Forced to say goodbye…
Wyatt was buried in the Chattanooga National Cemetery. Thousands of residents lined the funeral procession route, saluting and waving American flags. Lori Wyatt’s lyrics recall that moment.
The streets were lined with people, flags and signs
Blue skies, and Chattanooga Rain
They were called the Fallen Five, and he was one of them
A sea of red, white and blue was blowing in the wind…
Lori Wyatt partnered with Nashville songwriters Don Goodman and Steve Dean to create “Chattanooga Rain.”
“ ‘Chattanooga Rain’ represents the tears we’ve all shed over this,” Lori Wyatt says. “The town where my family, my friends, all of us—as we drove in the procession, the people were crying just as hard as we were over this loss. I hope that ‘Chattanooga Rain’ offers some inspiration to people knowing that, even though these times are hard, there are people there for you to help you.”
Operation Song is now working with Cathy Wells, the mother of Squire “Skip” Wells, a lance corporal and another Marine among the five killed in the 2015 attack in Chattanooga; and with Lt. Commander Tim White, commanding officer of the U.S. Navy’s Operational Support Center where the terrorist attack concluded.