Songs for the Unsung Heroes

By Drew Menard, October 11, 2017

Songs for the Unsung Heroes

By Drew Menard, October 11, 2017

Each story in this special feature section demonstrates a tenet of the “We The Champions” Declaration, part of a universitywide project that aims to tell the world how Liberty is fulfilling its mission of Training Champions for Christ.

We The Champions: Defend Freedom

Student Researches, Writes Composition About Veterans

The cost of defending freedom is high, and those who have paid the price often carry an unspoken burden that weighs on them heavily, even decades after returning home from the battlefield. One Liberty University School of Music student, encouraged by her professor, labored to view life through the eyes of weathered veterans and utilize the power of song to tell their stories.

Last spring, Julia Rothenberger, a junior artist development major, composed a cycle of four songs, about 23 minutes in length, based on over a dozen interviews she conducted with veterans who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“I had a lot of great responses from people who really wanted to be involved,” Rothenberger said. With the help of Liberty’s Office of Military Affairs, she connected one-on-one with veterans on campus and received written responses from as far away as San Diego. “The veterans I interviewed on campus gave me two or three hours’-worth of their time, just speaking, letting me into their world so trustingly, and really opening up.”

Dr. Mindy Damon oversaw Julia Rothenberger’s research project where the student composed songs based on interviews with war veterans.

Initially, Rothenberger did not realize the project’s potential. She approached Dr. Mindy Damon, coordinator of the School of Music’s Artist Development program, with a song she had started writing that included a metaphor about veterans.

“She saw potential in that,” Rothenberger said. “Using academic research, we turned this song idea and the message directed toward veterans into a bigger story.”

Damon introduced Rothenberger to the world of qualitative phenomenological research, which studies events from the perspective of the individual who has experienced them. Rothenberger conducted interviews, then identified recurring themes in the veterans’ stories, writing lyrics that matched the mood of the songs. The project was showcased during the university’s Research Week in April, where it won the creative research category.

“She is really good at it (songwriting), and she has a high emotional intelligence that helps her make meaning of people’s stories,” Damon said.

Rothenberger said the experience taught her more than she could have imagined, both about veterans and about herself. “It helped me to gain confidence and opened possibilities I never thought I was capable of, including formal research,” she said.

Some of the songs convey a struggle to fit in or to process feelings. Others, like “Stories From The VA,” have a more hopeful tone.

One song is about a service member returning from Afghanistan. Damon said that Rothenberger perfectly captured the veteran’s thoughts and feelings he had on the plane ride home, “what that person feels like in the space in between.”

Rothenberger said the soldier sees the empty seats beside him and realizes, “I am going to have to speak to the widows whom I promised to bring their husbands home.”

The stories are also told through the structure of the music itself. The song about the plane ride home, for example, was written using only the black keys on a piano to symbolize the soldier’s feeling of being an outsider.

Rothenberger sees the music as a way to help veterans overcome barriers, to realize that they shouldn’t try to face their struggles alone, and to help others become aware of the support that veterans need, even though they may not ask for it.

“The hope is to break down the intimidation, the walls of ‘I have no way to connect with this person,’” Rothenberger said. “Really, we do share similar struggles, and (veterans) want to share their stories — but sometimes the walls just get in the way.”

To be involved in the “We The Champions” project and read more inspiring stories from the Liberty community, visit and follow #WeTheChampions on social media.

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