Staff Perspective: Soul Asylum Rocks the Troops in the Middle East

Staff Perspective: Soul Asylum Rocks the Troops in the Middle East

Carin Lefkowitz, Psy.D.

It’s easy to say “I support the troops.”  It’s quite another thing to leave your family during the holidays, travel 24 hours to the other side of the world, clear multiple levels of security, and provide free entertainment to deployed Service members.  However, this is what the band Soul Asylum did recently.   In late December, I talked with lead guitarist Ryan Smith about performing for Service members, morale abroad, and the experience of being a civilian visitor in a deployed setting.

Soul Asylum is a Grammy Award-winning band from Minneapolis, Minn.  If you turned on the radio or MTV at any point in the 1990s, you’ve heard at least one of their hits – “Runaway Train,” Black Gold” or “Misery,” for example. This past Thanksgiving, the band traveled to Southwest Asia to perform for Service members stationed abroad.   I was interested in the motivation behind the band’s decision.  While the band’s respect for military families has long been evident in their music (listen to “Lately” from the 2006 album “The Silver Lining”), spending the holiday across the world and away from their own families is a considerable sacrifice.  Ryan described their mission for this trip in this way: “You’re going there to entertain people that are far from their families, far from their homes around the holidays.  [The show] provides escapism or relief from long work days in the hot sun and difficult situations. A lot of them miss home and it’s something that reminds them of being home. So when [performers] come from where they’re from, relatively speaking, that means something to them.  It’s almost like someone from your hometown is coming to visit you.  That seemed to be important to the people that I talked to.”

He added his own personal objective in performing for those stationed abroad: “Personally I was looking forward to seeing, from their point of view, what it’s like [to serve in a deployed setting]…. I think most people are curious to know what it’s like or to understand what other people’s lives are like and so I had a goal of connecting personally with people there.  Being stationed in in Southwest Asia, that’s just so far removed from my reality that I was curious to know what a day in the life is like for them, what kind of things they’re going through, what kind of things they feel.” 

Soul Asylum poses with Service members Photo by Jeneen AndersonWe discussed the band’s preparations and expectations for the trip.  Unsurprisingly, the logistics for this trip were dramatically different from other gigs, from clearing equipment through multiple layers of security to reconsidering the set list.  For most shows, drummer Michael Bland creates the set list, selecting songs from the band’s 30+-year discography with an ear for the musical composition of the set.  As Ryan describes, Michael is typically “looking at the flow of keys and energy and those types of things.  Like getting arcs into the set peaks and valleys.”   But a show like this led the band to think more carefully about how songs would be received by the audience: “I know Dave (Pirner, lead singer) had to think about the songs that he was playing. Dave’s the one singing these words, so I think it was probably a more potent thing for him to be in his mind, like ‘what am I singing to these people here? What the songs are saying, how would they be interpreted by someone away from home?’  And so we did think about it differently.  When you’re playing a show, whether it’s the U.S. or anywhere that’s not a military setting, you’re playing for people that are buying tickets to go hang out and this is the reason they’re there.  This is a little different.  You’re playing for people that are there away from home. They’re there to have some escapism, but also get some positivity, so that was going through my mind.  You always want the vibe to be positive when you’re on stage, but it’s like you almost have to increase the positivity a bit.”

I asked Ryan what he anticipated on this trip and how he prepared himself mentally.  Ryan explains, “I didn’t know if they had gone through anything really difficult recently.  That’s the worst, when you’re going through PTS (posttraumatic stress) and those types of things.  I didn’t know how safe they were feeling or how secure they were.”  He noted that he mentally prepared himself for seeing or hearing the worst. 

Fortunately, Ryan’s expectations did not pan out.  “There just wasn’t a lot of [distress] that I could see.  I’m sure it’s happened, but it certainly wasn’t prevalent there.  From what they explained to me, it’s actually a very safe place to be so morale was pretty good.  People weren’t in imminent danger as some other places in the military could be.  So they actually seemed pretty upbeat, relatively happy.  Spirits are high.”

Ultimately, Ryan had several opportunities to connect with the Service members, including crossing paths with multiple acquaintances from back home.  For example, he shared Thanksgiving dinner with a captain “who was about my age and we grew up, ironically, just a matter of a few miles from each other.  We knew a bunch of mutual people from high school and that left an impression on me.”  He also bumped into some old acquaintances from St. Joseph, Missouri.  “It was really a freaky small world thing; here we are [in Southwest Asia] and there’s people from St. Joe.  We’d met before or our paths had crossed and now we’re here.”

The band Soul Asylum poses with Service members during their USO tour. Photo by Jeneen AndersonAs the band toured the base and interacted with Service members, differences in experience were dwarfed by commonalities. “The similarities that I saw were that we have some of the same struggles.  Like if you travel a lot, that’s always hard.  A lot of people have families and they’re away from their family a lot and that is similar.  And to see how whatever it is that you’re doing when you’re out on a “mission”, whatever it is that they do for their work, they cut loose in the same way.  At the end of the day, hanging out with them felt like hanging out with other bands after a day of work on the road. I felt more connected and unified seeing how while you’re going through something completely different, you’re really very similar, you have the same human experiences with different circumstances.  There’s more unity than anything.  There’s more similarities than differences.”

This is where Ryan’s experiences most mirrored our experience at CDP.  Ryan’s expectations were similar to what we hear from our civilian colleagues who are preparing to work with military-connected clients.  They often expect that Service members will be diametrically different from them and are likely to be suffering with PTSD or other mental health conditions.  I bashfully admit that I held similar expectations when I first began working with Veterans.  To be fair, it’s true that military culture is shaped by specific values and goals, and that clinicians should be respectful of those.  But it is equally important to recognize the commonalities of human experience and that military-connected patients can be quite resilient to stress and trauma (for example, only 2.5% of active duty Service members were diagnosed with PTSD during FY 2016).

I talked with Ryan about what might account for us civilians having inaccurate views of the military lifestyle.  He noted, “many people get their ideas about things that they’re not directly connected with from things like movies or TV.  I’ve noticed this, being in music, it’s the same kind of thing where sometimes people who don’t know anyone in a band, they see it in the movies and they think ‘well this is what your life is like.’ Or they think that they know something about your life but they actually get it from fiction. I think it would be the same for absolutely any field….military, music, sports or whatever field you don’t have any involvement with.  You only know about it through whatever media you take in or stories you’ve heard.” 

It’s a straightforward but insightful observation.  If what you know about the military comes mostly from Rambo or Homeland, your perspective will be skewed.  Fortunately, there are many ways to address this.  You can start with our free online resources for increasing military cultural competence: Learn About Military Culture. And if the USO isn’t banging down your door to perform for our troops, you can seek consultation while you offer clinical services to military-connected patients.

My sincerest thanks to Ryan for his time and to Soul Asylum for their commitment to our Service members and Veterans.

The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.

Carin Lefkowitz, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Trainer at the Center for Deployment Psychology (CDP) at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD.

Reference: Deployment Health Clinical Center (Jan 2017).  Mental Health Disorder Prevalence among Active Duty Service Members in the Military Health System, Fiscal Years 2005-2016.