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Updated: Wednesday, 13 Mar 2013, 8:00 AM CDT
Published : Tuesday, 12 Mar 2013, 8:05 PM CDT
HOUSTON (KXAN) - In a converted warehouse in the shadow of downtown Houston, four U.S. Army veterans go to work. They have created their own jobs because, due to injuries and disabilities they brought home from war, they are unemployable in the broader marketplace.
Plenty of people would describe their jobs more as play than work, but all four vets carry heavy burdens to the stage they built in that warehouse.
“An IED (Improvised Explosive Device) hit my truck and I got exposed to an IED blast and I got a traumatic brain injury and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),” said veteran Paul Delacerda, recalling his time in Iraq.
“I lose feeling in my arms, right leg. I have muscle twitches and migraines all the time and stuff like that that comes with traumatic brain injury. I forget things.”
Most of it is invisible, I guess,” said Delacerda’s friend Levon Ingram, “invisible scars is what you would call it. I've had PTSD moments, depression moments, guilt, survivor's guilt.
“Traumatic brain injury, I also have that. So those are some of the things I have to deal with.”
Delacerda and Ingram make up half of the “ Warrior Spirit Band ,” a non-profit rock-n-roll outfit that tours the country, entertaining and counseling fellow vets who are struggling.
The other two members of the group are old enough to be their fathers.
“Sleep disorders, eating disorders, very quick to anger,” said vet Sean Foster, listing the disabilities he came home with after spending time as a sniper in Vietnam.
“I got very quick to anger. That's the biggest problem that I had to deal with. Somebody would say something and I would just snap.
PTSD also hobbles Foster’s friend, King Burton.
“It’s like having an apple in a huge barrel of good apples that's gone bad,: said Burton. “One apple and it's nasty. And it spreads through your life, through your soul. It's an open wound.
“It's a wound inside of you; it's nasty. That wound has every aspect of the physical wound. It's open and it's gaping and it's nasty. If you don't take care of it, it's infected.
“It infects everything about your life. There's nothing it won't touch.”
As you might expect, four men, each of whom fights such demons, can create a big mess when they try to work together in the same room every day.
“We carry our anger and we carry our guilt and stuff like that,” said Delacerda, “but we carry it to a practice session and it goes into our music a lot of times, too.
“We fight like brothers, is what it is. We fight like family here all the time.
“We get on the verge of, 'Screw you, I'm out of here. See you later: I'm out,' you know.
“But we always come back and we do what we do best.”
What these guys do best is work up an energetic show of their own songs, songs that tell of the agony of battle and the loneliness of a survivor’s fate, songs based on experiences like the ones Foster endured in Vietnam more than forty years ago.
“When we (snipers) were in field and in action, they never really knew where we were,” Foster recalled, “but they would blanket that area with fire. So you lay there and the hardest part is laying there and not moving.
“You don't blink. If you've got to go to the bathroom, you just go. You don't get up and go find a tree to go out behind.”
Then there was the wound, what Foster calls, “a sucking chest wound.”
“It's where the round goes in but it doesn't come out,” he said. “So when you try to take a breath, the air goes in through your chest. Eventually, the lung will fill up with blood.
“I pulled out a Baby Ruth bar out of my kit, stuck the candy in my mouth, put my finger in the wrapper and plugged the hole with it until the medics got there.”
So when vets return from Afghanistan and Iraq and suffer, Foster understands.
“It's something that never goes away,” he said. “Once you're affected by PTSD, it is incurable. What happens is there are processes where you learn to understand when that's what's happening to you. That's why you're seeing the world the way you are. And you learn to cope with it.
“This band has brought it out and been more effective and more helpful than anything I've done in times before, to rid myself of it, to deal with it," Foster said.
The sad reality, though, is that plenty of struggling veterans don’t find such outlets in time.
“Statistically speaking, you're losing a veteran every hour, one every hour, 24 in a day,” Delacerda said. “That's too much, you know, period. It shouldn't happen, not even one.”
So when the band members get a chance to visit with vets in their audiences, they listen long and hard.
“We had a guy who said he wanted to kill himself that day,” said Delacerda, “and when we came to play, it changed his mind and his outlook. That right there is success.
“We don't rate our success by gigs or money or putting records out, all that. We rate our success by the veterans that come up to you and shake your hand and say, 'Man, thanks for, you know, helping out. Thanks for being here for us.
“That's it; that's our success.”
to that end, Warrior Spirit Band does not play in the usual rock-and-roll venues.
“We don't play bars,” said Delacerda. “We're not a bar band. If we do play bars it's at a veterans' function, you know. It's something that helps other veterans.
“We play military bases and wounded warrior facilities and we're able not only to play but we talk to them. And they see that we're dealing with the same things they're about to start dealing with. And we want to make sure that that transition works out better than what happened with us.”
“When you play in a bar,” added Foster, “it's about keeping people on the dance floor and drinking. When we play, it's about helping these soldiers, these men and women realize that there is life after your injury, after your trauma, if you get up and you fight for it.”
And yet, when the band hits Austin for the SXSW music festival this week, a bar is exactly where it will play. Warrior Spirit will be featured in a free SXSW showcase at 8:00 PM Wednesday at the 512 Club at Sixth and Trinity Streets.
The plan is to use the gig to spread the word about the band and its mission. Operating as a non-profit group, the group relies on donations and sponsors and SXSW offers a perfect opportunity to showcase its work.
Besides, as Foster notes, post-traumatic stress is by no means limited to warriors.
PTSD is probably the most common or psychological ailment on this planet,” he said. “An unhappy divorce, losing a sibling, losing a child, losing an unborn child, having an unwanted child, getting set back in school, being bullied in school, unhappy relationships, a traumatic accident or your house burns down. It can come from a million different directions.”
So who knows, someone in the crowd at the 512 Wednesday night, might unexpectedly find themselves in the soothing, if somewhat raucous arms of four very caring human beings.
After the Austin gig, it’s back on the road for the band members. In between tours, though, they are also hard at work on something they call, “ Rock 4 Recovery .”
It’s a school they are founding for vets and their families in that same warehouse building where they practice their music.
“Right now we have guitar tech class,” said Delarcerda. “King's going to be giving a class on music theory and stuff like that.
“There are other classes that are going to be coming up, vocal lessons, for instance, marketing your band. In fact, there are going to be tons of other opportunities to do anything in the music business.”
Such is the mission of these veterans.
“The rest of my life,” Foster said, “I intend on spending helping to save military lives, not taking them.”
“We are a group of guys that have done what the nation wanted us to do,” added Delacerda. “We protected the freedom that we all uphold at this very moment.
“But the one thing that we're doing now: We're giving back to the people that are still fighting for us. And when they come home, we're going to continue to keep doing what we do.
“We're not going to leave anyone behind.”
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