Wounded Vets Create Music ... as Well as Jobs for Themselves

Warrior Spirit Band
Warrior Spirit Band band members Paul Delacerda, King Burton, Sean Foster and Levon Ingram at Rock 4 Recovery.
Paul Delacerda has had a long road to his current job as the drummer for a touring rock band composed entirely of wounded military veterans.

When he left the Army in 2009, he faced a difficult question: what to do next? Like many vets, he'd been wounded in an improvised explosive device blast in Iraq and was suffering from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. Discharged with a medical retirement, he didn't need to work, but couldn't stand the idea of inactivity. "I wanted to do something important with my time," he recalls.

Before joining the military, Delacerda had been a musician, and had played drums since he was 15. Unfortunately, combat had left him with a variety of injuries, including recurring migraines and numbness in his hands and right leg. Doctors had told him that he would never be able to play again.

A former explosives expert in the Army, Delacerda trained to become a humanitarian demining technician. Unfortunately, as he soon discovered, his brain injuries left him with memory issues that made it impossible for him to work with explosives. But then, he happened to attend a Wounded Warrior alumni event. During the talent show, a friend convinced him to play drums on stage. After the show, he met several fellow combat veterans who also had been professional musicians. Bass guitarist King Burton had played with Bob Hope in Vietnam. Guitar tech Sean Foster, a Vietnam vet, had since worked with Heart, the J. Geils Band, Steve Miller, David Crosby, and a long list of other legendary artists. All of them were using music to help put their lives back together.

They talked about forming a band, but realized that they wanted to do something bigger than just playing music. "We've already done the record deal thing, and we know how the industry works," he says. "We wanted to build something that wasn't just a band. We wanted to build an organization."

In 2010, Delacerda and his comrades created the Warrior Spirit Band, a group composed entirely of wounded former veterans who have used music to put their lives back together. Their music is rock with a country edge, and hearkens back to a 1970's-tinged southern rock sound. But while their rhythms will seem familiar to fans of Steve Miller or Lynyrd Skynyrd, their lyrics are entirely contemporary. Their song "Not Easy Being a Soldier" echoes the experience of a military patrol, while "Heart in Your Hand" brings to mind the painful vulnerability of leaving loved ones at home during a deployment.

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Since its creation, the group has toured the country, playing at numerous military bases and Wounded Warrior events -- often free. The band, a nonprofit, has independently released a handful of their own songs, and has found a strong audience. Independent music site ReverbNation currently lists it as the fifth most popular alternative band in the Houston area, where they're based, and in the top 400 nationally.

Whatever money the band brings in is to just cover their expenses. "We play a lot of bases, where we talk to these guys, let them know that we're here for them, and help them realize that there's a support structure for them," Delacerda explains. "At our shows, veterans come up to us. Some of them are unemployed, or virtually homeless. We try to hook them up with people to help them find a job, help them with their PTSD, and assist them with their veterans' administration paperwork."

They've had a lot of help. Among other partnerships, Warrior Spirit has joined with several instrument companies, an alliance that has worked well for both groups. "For many of our sponsors, we're brand ambassadors," Delacerda notes. "If an instrument company wants to put themselves in front of soldiers, we're a great way to do that. We give out guitars, guitar strings, drumsticks, and lots of other music products."

The group also relies on donations from private individuals to keep it in business and on the road.

Sometimes, the donations take strange forms. For the past year, Delacerda and his bandmates have been renovating a 10,000 square foot facility in Houston that they hope to transform into a work training facility, where they can teach veterans how to play music, work with instruments, do band prep work, and perform other jobs in the music industry.

The new program, which they call "Rock 4 Recovery," has gotten the support of the City of Houston, as well as various local bands, a handful of charities, and some larger companies, like Home Depot. "They've donated carpet and some building materials for the facility," Delacerda says. "They've really come through."

But even with their partners, funding the renovations takes almost every spare penny the group produces. Delacerda has partially financed it out of his own retirement, and estimates that he has spent $40,000 of his own money on rent, utilities and renovation costs.

Ultimately, though, Delacerda and his bandmates see this as their mission. "This is a choice that we've made – to help our combat veterans," he explains. "I've had friends kill themselves because they thought that there was nobody there to help them. I don't want that to happen to anyone else. We don't want to leave anyone behind."

Savings at Music Festivals
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Wounded Vets Create Music ... as Well as Jobs for Themselves

The first task in attending a festival is finding a way to get there; unfortunately, some of the best take place in some of the most out-of-the-way venues. Several festival organizers noted that carpooling can save cash, and Kelly M., a veteran participant in the unique cultural event that is Burning Man, noted that "sharing food and transport with a group is definitely the way to do it."

On the other hand, at urban events, like Chicago's North Coast Music Festival, it's parking that can be the problem. Zach Partin, North Coast's publicist, suggests that attendees ride a bicycle or take public transportation: "We've worked closely with the city, and they provide extra public transportation for the festival."

Photo by Dustinj, Flickr.com

Another problem is finding a good place to stay. After all, festivals draw tens of thousands of visitors to areas that often aren't well-equipped to house them. Veteran festival-goer Chris Burgoyne favors budget hotels, and plans ahead to book them: "I just need a bed where I can crash after a long day of music. I don't pay for comfort and luxury on a festival trip." Some festivals even negotiate with area hotels to offer discounted rates.

Burgoyne also suggests camping: "It is usually much cheaper than a hotel, and can be quite a fun experience. If you want to save on camping supplies, most universities have outdoor clubs where you can rent good equipment cheaply." Some festivals even add the cost of camping into their ticket prices, eliminating the hidden cost of lodging.

Photo by Gentlebird, Flickr.com

The food options at festivals are attractive, but can quickly add up. Most festival planners advised packing at least one meal per day, and some noted that in-festival camping facilities make it easy to cook your own food on site. A fan of the All Good Festival suggested that festival goers "try not to buy food that requires ice, since you spend a lot of money keeping things cold in the summer."

Photo Dani P.L., Flickr.com

Bottled water can get expensive, too. Most organizers advise that visitors bring their own bottles and refill them at the venue. Partin notes that North Coast offers hoses and water fountains, and that, when it gets especially hot, "We've even given away bottles of water for free."

An added tip: freeze your water bottles ahead of time. As the day goes on, they'll defrost, offering you cool, clean water in the afternoon -- when you'll need it most.

Festival organizers like to plan ahead, to ensure that they have sufficient facilities to take care of all their attendees. With that in mind, they often offer discounts to early ticket purchasers. As Partin explains North Coast's "Ticket prices go up with every announcement" as the festival releases further information about the musical acts.

Groupon isn't just for manicures and restaurant discounts: Many festivals also offer huge price cuts on tickets through the coupon site.

Veteran festival goer Burgoyne suggests a great way to save on admission. "Most festivals employ volunteers to staff up for what is usually a once-a-year operation," he notes. "Volunteers usually get in free in exchange for a fairly light schedule of work ripping tickets or emptying trash or whatever the fest needs." In addition to the free pass, he pointed out that volunteering has other benefits: "You might get a T-shirt, you'll get backstage, and you'll meet people, which will make the experience better."

North Coast's Partin agrees. "We have a tab on our website for volunteers. In return for a handful of hours worth of work, you can go to the festival for free. Alternately, members of our street team also get in free."

Photo by MoBikeFed, Flickr.com


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