Left, Jason Sever meets with 102-year-old Tommy Gwynn; right, Tommy Gwynn, then a World War II lieutenant. Photo courtesy of Operation Song.
Tommy Gwynn has escaped death more times than most in his 102 years. As a lieutenant leading Army Rangers in World War II, he survived D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge. Five years later, he was called back to fight in the Korean War, where he was captured twice and nearly hung with his own belt in captivity. By his count, he suffered at least 24 wounds during the two wars.
Gwynn recounted all this in a 2020 video chat with songwriter Jason Sever. Throughout their conversation, Gwynn quoted several Bible verses he said got him through all those brushes with death. But the one he cherished most was John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”
Before the interview, Sever had done his homework on Gwynn, reading local news stories from his hometown of Tullahoma, Tennessee. He knew Gwynn had had an extensive military career, and several song ideas about the veteran were bouncing around his mind as their talk drew to a close.
“I know why I’m still alive,” Gwynn said toward the end of their conversation.
“Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” — John 15:13 Songwriters and veterans meet and collaborate on Operation Song retreats. Photo courtesy of Operation Song.
Sever paused, struck by those words. “Why is that, Tom?”
“It’s because the devil don’t want me,” Gwynn replied.
Sever scrapped all his previous ideas. He’d just found the title of Gwynn’s song.
Bob Regan is something of a legend in Nashville. The Grammy-nominated songwriter has penned hits for artists including Reba McEntire, Billy Ray Cyrus, Lee Greenwood, and Keith Urban during his decadeslong career. After performing on several overseas military tours, he decided in 2012 that he wanted to help service members transition back to civilian life using the power of music.
Regan founded Operation Song as a weekly program through the VA in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He invited two groups of people he had come to know well — veterans and Nashville songwriters — to meet and perhaps create music together. He asked veterans if they would share stories about their service and hoped the songwriters would transform those tales into lyrics. The nonprofit now holds songwriting retreats all over the country, offered at no cost to the veterans who attend.
Retired Army 1st Sgt. Mike Byer was hesitant to attend a songwriting retreat but acquiesced after receiving a personal invitation from Regan. The retreat fell the weekend after Byer’s son graduated from basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
“It was a very emotional time for us both because I was retiring at the same time he was joining,” Byer told The Forward Observer.
At the retreat, Byer sat down with two songwriters and started talking about how he felt he had passed the torch to his son. It reminded him of the tradition of lacing your boots together and tossing them over the wire in front of your headquarters to signify the end of your service.
“About 30 to 40 minutes later, [he] picks up the guitar and he just starts playing this song,” Byer said. “It was my song and my son’s song. It was amazing. From then on I was hooked.”
Now, Byer serves as Operation Song’s executive director.
Marine veteran Kevin Jones, left, with Dallas Burrow. Photo courtesy of Operation Song.
Operation Song participants have written more than 1,000 songs spanning generations of service members, from World War II veterans such as Gwynn, to Iraq and Afghanistan vets like Kevin Jones.
Jones was barely 18 when he joined the Marine Corps in 2001, but he grew up fast over the course of seven deployments to the Middle East. The worst came during the Second Battle of Fallujah in late 2004, when Jones’ team went house to house through the city searching for insurgents. He lost three of his closest friends on that deployment.
For more than a decade, Jones buried those memories deep as he continued his military career, got married, and had two children. But as he dealt with suicides in his commands, and neared retirement and the uncertainty of life after the military, Jones said the nightmares started. And then the drinking.
He didn’t want to open up about his past at a 2021 Operation Song retreat in Bandera, Texas. Being one of about a dozen veterans, though, made it easier. They understood one another’s experiences. There was no judgment.
When it was time to write, Jones paired up with Texas-based singer Dallas Burrow. He started from the beginning, telling Burrow how he’d followed in his own father’s footsteps to join the Marine Corps, knowing the events of Sept. 11 meant he’d be heading to war. Burrow flipped the pages of his hand-sized notebook, jotting down bits of Jones’ story: the agony of Iraq, the beer garden where Jones met his wife between deployments; the struggle to be a good father. They went back and forth over some lines, making sure the lyrics captured his experiences while also flowing well.
Marine veteran Kevin Jones rides in a helicopter while deployed in Iraq. Photo courtesy of Operation Song.
The pair performed the rough draft of “The War Within” at the end of the retreat. Burrow’s band later recorded a fuller version of the song and sent Jones the audio file, which he promptly forwarded to his wife and father — both of whom are mentioned in the lyrics.
“To be able to transcribe your story into a song — and be able to listen to that and maybe reflect a little bit — is just amazing,” Jones said.
Byer and Jones said talking to a songwriter was easygoing in a way that speaking with counselors often isn’t. The writer doesn’t try to diagnose an illness or “fix” anyone. They’re just there to listen.
“Songwriting is therapy for a lot of people. You’re writing about your life experiences. I usually share a little bit of mine and hope that the guy opens up. It works every single time,” Sever said.
Sever has written songs for country stars including Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean, but he finds a special connection with the veterans he sits down with. He estimates he’s joined about a dozen Operation Song retreats and says the songs fall right out of the participants.
“There’s usually a kinship that’s established right at the beginning, that you can trust me. I’m not here to analyze your brain. I’m not here to do anything,” he said. “I’m here to play some guitar chords and hopefully put something together that might inspire not only you but somebody else.”
Songwriting lyrics take the form of snippets and scribbles hastily jotted down on legal pads. Photo courtesy of Operation Song.
Typically, songs are written in a few hours during the retreats. Sever took his time with Gwynn’s stories from World War II and Korea. About two months after the two met, Sever was painting the ceiling of a house he was working on — a side hobby that keeps him busy in between writing gigs. With his back against the scaffolding, lyrics flitted across his mind. Sever jumped down, grabbed his ever-present guitar, and started recording audio using his phone.
A few months later, Sever drove to Tullahoma for Gwynn’s 102nd birthday party. As he parked in front of the town’s First Baptist Church, it seemed to him as if the whole town had shown up. Gwynn wore a button-up American flag shirt and a baby blue blazer. Eventually one of Gwynn’s friends asked Sever to get up in front of the crowd and play the song.
Sever obliged and picked out the haunting opening notes of “Devil Don’t Want Me,” singing the lyrics that had come to him while painting, inspired by Gwynn’s Operation Song interview.
I tell him the truth, when he’s telling his lies.
I’ll stare straight up, look him dead in his eyes.
Let him haunt me.
Let him taunt me.
The devil don’t want me.
At the end of the song, the room erupted in teary-eyed applause, just the tribute that Sever knew Gwynn deserved.
This article first appeared in the Summer 2022 print edition of The Forward Observer, a special publication from Coffee or Die Magazine.
Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.
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