The Soldier and the Songwriter: How Music Helped a War Veteran Overcome PTSD

Songwriting partnerships are often born from unlikely pairings, solidified by a shared circumstance or an empathetic understanding of an experience. When Huntsville, Alabama songwriter Alan Little met John Schmitt, a San Francisco Iraq War veteran, the two had no idea their music would bring catharsis and joy to not only themselves, but their town and soldiers around the world.

Schmitt had returned home from a second tour in Iraq in the mid-2000’s and was carrying the weight of losing friends from war, a dark lingering trauma that he rarely verbalized. Soon after meeting Little, he felt the freedom to open up about his PTSD and the painful memories that caused it. Little suggested writing a song, which Schmitt had never done. The creative process not only bonded them as friends, it also was medicine to Schmitt’s invisible wounds.

“John and I got to know each other through our daughters, who are now teenagers. They met in first grade and became best friends’” Little said. “That was shortly after John and his family moved to Huntsville. In fact, our song “Welcome Home” is about John moving to Huntsville.”

“I’ve always had respect for our veterans, Little continues. “But I never really understood how gruesome it can be. I went to John and said, ‘I’ll do music, you do words.’ Kinda like an Elton and Bernie thing.”

The two wrote their first song, the minor-key folk original “War Without End,” which Little performed at Listen Local, a songwriter showcase in Huntsville. The performance was a life-changing moment for Schmitt. The war veteran was taken back by the connection of artist and audience responding to his lyrics: “A decision from my mouth/A mission I should have flown/But for me my war goes on.”

“Seeing it performed in front of hundreds of people and seeing their response was like the weight of the world was lifted off me. It was a moment of healing for me. It was where my journey of healing began. Music saved my life.”

Alan and John’s biggest collaboration to date is organizing the “Music From The Moon” 2019 songwriting competition, which encouraged songwriters from all over the world to submit their own moon songs inspired by the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

Tonewood Amp, an Arizona-based company that makes an acoustic guitar effect, and a sponsor of the contest, got wind of the duo’s inspiring story and filmed a mini-documentary about their journey, which you can view below.

Little, a fine blues-styled guitar picker, had been following the development of the Tonewood Amp effect. “It changed the way I felt about playing. It was tapping into a musical emotion and pulling me out of rut that I had been in. I was hearing myself differently and playing the guitar more deliberately. It enhanced my love of playing.”

More than 200 artists from all 50 states, Europe, Africa and Australia submitted songs for the Music From The Moon contest, and the event put Huntsville on the bigger stage as a city with a growing songwriter culture. The contest drew together industry leaders including FAME studios and celebrity judges Ben Lovett (Mumford and Sons), Mac MacAnally and John Paul White (The Civil Wars). The song “Show The World” by Maiah Wynne was chosen as the winning song, with Wynne receiving a recording session at FAME.

Since 2015, Schmitt and Little have been writing music together about life, love and healing. In February, Alan Little released his album While They Were Sleeping, which includes many of the writing duo’s original songs. Plans for a live celebration of the album’s release were set until the stay-at-home rules were instated. But for Little, the songwriter, and Schmitt, the war veteran turned songwriter, coronavirus is undoubtedly just another enemy to confront, and turn it into song.

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