How songwriting helps Kalamazoo-area veterans connect and heal

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

KALAMAZOO, MI — "There are certain things you can put in a song that you can’t really just sit down and tell somebody,” says Dustin Welch, founder of a transformative music initiative for veterans called Soldier Songs and Voices

Welch, a native of Nashville who now lives in Lockhart, Texas, launched the nonprofit in 2011. There are currently 17 chapters throughout the United States, including one in Kalamazoo.

The Kalamazoo Chapter meets at First Congregational Church downtown on the first and third Thursday of each month. 

Casey GrootenFirst Congregational Church in downtown Kalamazoo is where the SW Michigan Chapter of SSaV currently meets. 2SSaV participants come from many different backgrounds but find common ground in their military service and love for music. 

You do not have to be an expert, know how to play any instruments, or even sing to participate. Second Wave attended an April meeting and spoke with Cory Johnson and Josh Jerz, co-facilitators, and with Bill Lisowski, a participant.

Jerz, who has a wide, welcoming smile, grew up in Dowagiac and now lives in Kalamazoo. Jerz’s journey as a veteran began in the Dowagiac Army National Guard where he served in the infantry. In 2012, he was deployed to Afghanistan and faced the many challenges of military life. 

Casey GrootenJosh Jerz speaks to the group as facilitator and fiddles on his guitar while the conversation ebbs and flows."I ripped a lot of pants," Jerz says, recalling the lighter side of deployment. "It's about adaptation," he says, reflecting on how his military experience shaped his ability to overcome obstacles.

Johnson, a father and musician who is also from Dowagiac, joined the group as a volunteer facilitator. According to the SSaV website, the group's goal “is to improve the quality of life of veterans and their families through songwriting and music.” 

Johnson is not a veteran, but songwriting and the nonprofit's mission drew him to the group. A guitarist, Johnson fronts a band called Cory Johnson & The Broken Nightscape, and his quiet strumming served as background throughout the meeting. 

Casey GrootenJim Lozowski has attended two meetings so far and plans to keep coming back.Lisowski, of Gobles, served in the military during the Cold War, Desert Shield, and Desert Storm, in tours of duty that covered decades and crossed several continents. Though he didn't deploy after 911, his time in the Air Force, including a remote assignment in South Korea, left an indelible imprint on his life, he says. 

The music program, says Lisowksi, helps him bridge the past and present.

“I like to be able to put journals together,” to create lyrics, he says. Lizowski was attending his second meeting when the interview took place, sharing that he planned to keep coming back. 

“Follow up with me in a month or two” he jokes. Jerz jumped in with a comment about Lizowski’s lyric writing ability, saying that he had done some incredible work already. 

“It’s very visceral, very straight from the emotions. It comes right out, and not everybody can do that,” says Jerz to the group of Lisowski's songwriting. “There is a bedrock of a great writer there.”

Casey GrootenJim Lozowski reads the lyrics to his song “Gravel."“Oh boy,” Lisowski replies, laughing. When requested to read a song out loud, he leaned back in his chair, flipped through his notebook, and chose a piece titled “Gravel."

I was walking down a dusty, stony road. 
Had my head up in the clouds,
and my feet were in gravel (gravel).

Feet weighed down, carrying a heavy load, 
Praying the bag will hold. 
There was rocks in my shoes gravel (gravel).

Seen her standing there, 
She was looking fine
But she was selling gravel (gravel). 

The Kalamazoo Chapter of SSaV had been meeting online, but since January 2024, they have been meeting in person. Jerz says that the part of songwriting he enjoys most is creating from personal experience, “and turning it into something relatable for someone hearing it.” 

Casey GrootenCory Johnson plays his guitar for the group during the beginning of the meeting.He says creating a song is a long process that he wishes happened right away. Jerz, who has been attending various songwriting groups over the past two years, became the leader of the Southwest Michigan Chapter of SSaV when he signed up for a newsletter and founder Welch called him personally. 

Johnson says it is an honor to be involved with soldiers. Writing, he says, saved his life, and he alluded to how songwriting helped him “spill the bad from me.” Johnson went on to say he has a deep appreciation for Jerz and the group for welcoming him into such a tender space. 

The group's leaders are aware of the psychological and physical challenges veterans face. They took a moment to share that taking one's own life is serious and spoke of resources for veterans if they feel this urge and need to speak with someone.

Casey GrootenFrom the outside of the meeting room, the group strums their guitars as they wait for the start time.The April meeting began with introductions and check-in on how everyone was doing. The facilitators then introduced a prompt, which was a list-making challenge. Participants were requested to create lists about what makes them happy — from types of vehicles to fast food chains.

The exercise, facilitators explained, is meant to get creative juices flowing and stop the brain from thinking too hard. Each person then shared their lists, and the answers sparked conversations between group members. Founder Dustin Welch said later that the laid-back atmosphere of chapter meetings is common.

Driven by a strong desire to give back to those who served, Welch, who lives in Lockhart, Texas, started Soldier Songs and Voices in 2011. Though not a veteran himself, Welch chose to offer his musical and administrative experience to the nonprofit.

As a professional songwriter and musician for over 20 years, Welch has toured all over the US and still enjoys playing local gigs near his home. “This is what I know how to do," says Welch, "and I want to do something to help."

Casey GrootenJohnson plays his guitar for the group during the beginning of the meeting.The beginning of SSaV was sparked by a song Welch wrote about a returning Vietnam veteran. The song resonated so deeply with his audiences that "pretty much every night I'd be playing a gig and I'd have a vet come up to me after the show," Welch recalls. He says multiple folks would approach him and say they wished they could learn to write music or play an instrument to discuss their experiences. These comments stuck with Welch. 

Teaming up with like-minded individuals and local music venues in San Marcos, Texas, Welch hosted a benefit to raise money to purchase guitars for veterans. This initiative led to songwriting workshops also tailored specifically to veterans.  At first, Welch worked as a board member with The Welcome Home Project, a retired nonprofit that helped veterans acclimate back to civilian life, but then decided to create his own 501c3 for Soldier Songs and Voices.

The administrative team of Soldier Songs and Voices spans Texas, Alabama, and Colorado. Welch still works as a co-facilitator of groups, and hosts a Zoom session every Monday, as well as an in-person group in Lockhart. He says he began the nonprofit to benefit the veteran community while also having fun but says the impact has been more than he imagined. 

"We started seeing that folks were getting cognitive abilities back," Welch shares. Participants began to almost immediately experience their memories improving, chronic seizures ceasing, and those with speech aphasia beginning to recover vocabulary. These circumstances caused Welch to look into connecting with medical and educational institutions. 

The music and writing the veterans created increased their capacity to communicate with their loved ones. The entire community benefited from this new reconnection. 

Casey GrootenAlthough the group was intimately sized this time, Josh Jerz says there is always a different number of folks who attend.Through partnerships with music therapists and educational institutions like the Berklee College of Music, Welch aims to elevate the organization's impact and reach a wider service area. "The approach with this org is radically different than traditional music therapy," Welch says. He sees healthcare and educational settings as an important next step in Soldier Songs and Voices' future.

As for the Kalamazoo Chapter of SSaV, Jerz and Johnson welcome all veterans. They are excited at how this opportunity to share and grow may positively impact the local community. 

If you would like to learn more about Soldier Songs and Voices, please visit the SSaV website.

Casey GrootenA SSaV poster that was hung in the room where the group meets.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Casey Grooten.

Casey Grooten is a Kalamazoo native who lived in the Vine and Stuart neighborhoods for over a decade and graduated from WMU with a Bachelors in English. Casey lives in Kalamazoo and spends their free time making artwork and music. Casey is passionate about social justice and equity, transgender rights, community events, and the arts.