Music of My Soul: My Journey to Healing

By Connie Hunter-Baptiste, United States Air Force (Ret)

*This is an article from the Winter 2021-2022 issue of Combat Stress

In 2015, Women Veteran Social Network, Inc. (www.wvsjnetwork.org) hosted our second Annual Conference in Atlanta GA. As a WVSJ Ambassador, I was assigned to be wingman/battle buddy to Jason Moon, one of our Veteran musical guest performers at the Conference. We spent three days together traveling around Atlanta and navigating the Conference. What was happening while I hosted Jason would become life changing for me.

During the days we spent becoming friends, we began to share the stories our military service. This was a glimpse into worlds that neither one of us knew existed. Jason learned about harm done to many women Service Members, and how that same harm can affect women Veterans of color on many additional deeper levels. I learned first-hand the effects of combat on Veterans who served in war zones. We both learned of the invisible wounds that can affect those of us traumatized during our military service in different ways. In sharing our stories, we developed a friendship and mutual respect that would start my journey to healing and would help build a legacy that would change my life forever.  This chance meeting allowed me to be a part of Jason’s music program through his nonprofit, Warrior Songs, Inc. (www.warriorsongs.org), giving me, a woman Veteran of color, the opportunity to tell my story through songwriting and singing.

During our weekend together, I realized that my assignment was not just to make sure Jason’s experience was seamless, but to share my story and open a window for him into the world of women who have served, and more importantly into the world of women Veterans of color. Our series of candid, transparent conversations led to not only friendship with a military brother, fellow advocate, and Founder/Executive Director of Warrior Songs, but the beginning of a healing experience for me through his music program.

My Journey to Healing

Society sometimes thinks that the military world is perfect, but it is far from it. The ills that are seen in society are magnified in the military by the very power that the perpetrators have over their victims.  Offenders are often our peers or our leaders, and sometimes a stranger who is also in uniform. You always believe that your experience is not unique, that everyone who served is aware of all the harm and hurt that goes on in the military.

Being black in the military is not easy. Being a black woman in the military can sometimes seem unbearable and very lonely. As a military woman/killing machine, I was trained to bury anything that resembles softness, femininity or emotion. To survive, I could not be a woman, a mother, or show feelings. To show or share feelings was considered substandard for military personnel. Speaking out in defense of others could be considered a character flaw, and the military had no place for that.

I spent most of my military career in spaces where I was often the only woman and sometimes the only person of color. I heard the racial and sexist jokes focusing on my brothers and sisters in arms.  I heard the comments when they thought I wasn’t listening or wasn’t in the room. I did not have a name for what I was feeling, what it meant to witness what had happened to me and to others; I just knew that the hurt was unexplainable and deep. For years I carried that hurt and buried it so deep that I did not realize it was inside of me. I just knew I had to excel, survive, keep my head down, and do my job.  There was hurt, rejection, and denial because I was a woman, a black woman. There were many times I witnessed the same harm being done to others.

Realization: Military Moral Injury

I served for 20 years in the United States Air Force, with the highest rank of Technical Sergeant (Retired). I had many non-traditional jobs, including Cable Installer, Drug Enforcement Officer, and Training Manager. There were many times I was completely ignored and treated as if I was invisible, given no respect even though my rank said that I earned it. I buried the damage and the hurt deep inside just to survive. I heard the jokes, e.g., from “black people hating God because of having pubic hair on their heads”, to “where are the good-looking women.” There was even an incident where I was intentionally left behind at the squadron when my team went to a jobsite. What did that say about inclusion?

In what I thought was a simple conversation with Jason Moon, sharing my experiences brought the pain flooding back. Just like so many other traumas, it bubbles up when you least expect it. There are so many layers to my moral injury, the wrongs I witnessed or experienced, the hurt I could not or did not prevent just to survive. I now know that what I was feeling that deep hurt, is Military Moral Injury. Moral injury has a broad definition in the civilian world, and Military Moral Injury applies specifically to wounds sustained during military service that include acts against one’s values and beliefs that can happen in and out of combat and also include aggressive unwanted acts against one’s person, known as Military Sexual Trauma (MST). But it is so much more.1,2 I believe that experiencing and witnessing racism, sexism and other “isms” was for me a profound Military Moral Injury.

Finding my Voice

My time spent with Jason introduced me to the wonderful healing power of music. I discovered that I had a story to tell and that telling it was my way of starting to heal from my trauma. Music is and has always been a big part of the community of color. It has been our way of sharing who we are and what we need to say. We write songs about social injustice, love, heartache, and war. We sing when we are far away from home. We sing to remember our love ones, to honor our brothers and sisters we lost in war, to fight and right the wrongs done to us and others.

You can trace the music of our community back to every war and conflict. In the twentieth century alone, this has included: Jim Europe and other black regiment bandleaders in World War I; Josephine Baker, who sang throughout Europe while spying for the French Resistance in World War II; Alberta Hunter and Ella Fitzgerald, who sang the blues and jazz for troops through the USO; BB King and John Coltrane, who played in military bands while serving in uniform in World War II; Bill Withers, Marvin Gay, and The Temptations, who sang protest songs during the Viet Nam era; and BriGette McCoy, Gulf War era Veteran, who has composed and sung songs celebrating black women Veterans in the twenty first century. And now I can proudly add my name to the list.

Our music is a way we choose to tell the world how we feel. Through our music, we can speak of the heartache, the unfair treatment, the losses, and our overcoming all of them. Veteran songs tell the stories about our service, not because of what America was and is, but what we believed it could and can be. Veteran songs also celebrate our overcoming pain and finding joy going forward.

Warrior Songs, Inc.

I cannot talk about my healing journey without talking about Jason Moon and Warrior Songs, Inc., the non-profit he started because of his own combat trauma and the need for music in his life. There are always people who cross your path, who talk about helping but don’t, and then there are people who show up. These are the advocates who make the biggest impact on one person at a time. Jason is one of those Veterans who walks the walk and show up for other Veterans. He is an advocate that did not look like me, but who championed my cause.

I accepted Jason’s invite to perform on an all-women Veteran CD. To do this, I had to set aside all of my fears and apprehensions. Participating on this CD meant no longer keeping my head down and being silent. It meant that the world would see and hear me now. It also meant that by telling my story, I would again have to deal with the trauma embedded in my military service, but it also meant healing and getting on with life. Here was my opportunity to tell the world about the Warrior I had always been, the proud Airman, who gave 20 years of my life to serve a country who didn’t always understand or see me.

My first attempt at song writing and performing as a singer/songwriter earned me a place in history on Warrior Songs, Women at War:  Warrior Songs Vol. 2, which won Album of the Year at the 2019 Wisconsin Area Music Industry Awards. I was no longer invisible. I heard my sisters in arms singing my song and making it their anthem, the theme song of women Warriors.

I was later granted a second opportunity to attend one of Warrior Songs’ Art Retreats in Phoenix, Arizona, which was for women Veteran MST survivors. As a gift to the attendees, I worked with Jason and co-wrote and performed a song using the words of the women Veterans in attendance. We performed the song on the last night of the retreat at a fundraiser, See Me (https://warriorsongs.org/track/1906473/see-me). Jason and I teamed up to express through their song the hurt, betrayal and the winning spirit of the women Veteran warriors who told their stories at the retreat.

My Music: My Legacy

I can now take an honest look back over my military career with new eyes. I am a country girl from the deep South, a place that was the birth of racism. My uncles, my brothers, my cousins and I wrote a blank check to America without hesitation. I missed many birthdays, anniversaries, and family gatherings to serve and protect. I have seen wrongs perpetrated on those around me and lived through those same wrongs done to me. But if you listen to my song, you will hear my dreams, my Warrior declaration. I was in love with an idea of what I wanted America to be, not just for me but for my sons, my grandsons, my nieces and nephews.

I told my story and began to heal. I thought it was just my story, but I found out it was the story of many of my sisters in arms. I am honored to have gotten past my fears and was able to co-write and perform my story through music. My anthem, Always on Top,  https://warriorsongs.org/track/2792738/always-on-top, is my history, my story put to music. Always on Top is my belief in me, my healing. In writing my story, performing, and recording my history, I have reclaimed who I am and where I will always be going forward, Always on Top.

                                                                 ALWAYS ON TOP

(A Warrior’s Song: Connie Hunter-Baptiste)

Written By: Connie Hunter-Baptiste and Dora D. Chambers

https://warriorsongs.org/track/2792738/always-on-top

(Introduction)

I put on the uniform

And found myself

I served my country

And fell in love with ME

Traveled the world

Being all I could be

God showed me

Here is where I’d be

Always On Top.

(Chorus)

Always on Top; Always on Top;

Always on Top; Always on Top;

No matter what it looked like

God always sees me through

No matter the seasons, 

I always found a reason to rise

(Bridge)

Write the pages of my life;

Let the chapters speak my truth

I lived in complete service

Always giving, always sharing

(Chorus)

Always on Top; Always on Top;

Always on Top; Always on Top.

 (Verse 1)

They said I couldn’t make it

They said that I shouldn’t try

No matter what people said

I made up my mind to win– my way

A Warrior I am designed to be

Celebrating Victory after Victory

I live in total Celebration

Always smiling, always laughing,

A heart full of joy; a Champion of Love

Always on Top

(Bridge)

Write the pages of my life;

Let the chapters speak my truth

I lived in complete service

Always giving, always sharing

(Verse 2)

I’ve been knocked down

I’ve been put down

I’ve had my share of heartache

I have been loved, but never chosen

But I choose me, I choose to love

Living my best;

A Shining Star;

Bright for the world to see

By grace, I’ve come this far

My love for my Country made me

This world it couldn’t break me

Here I am

Standing strong

Always on top.

(Bridge)

Write the pages of my life;

Let the chapters speak my truth

I lived in complete service

Always giving, always sharing.

(Chorus)

Always on Top; Always on Top;

Always on Top; Always on Top.

 (Verse 3)

Let them tell my story

Let them talk about my life

Filled with love, with joy

Always giving more than I got

My service tells how I live

Unselfish love and unconditional giving

Standing strong, living large

Here I am, Always on Top

References

  1. O’Hara, C. & Vicars, C. (2021). Military Moral Injury and Women Veterans. Select Proceedings form the 2020 Women Veterans Military Moral Injury Conferences. Moral Injury Support Network for Servicewomen, Inc., 11-32.
  2. O’Hara, C. & Vicars, R.C. (2018). Military Moral Injury: Assessment and Treatment Interventions for Veterans with Military Service-Related Invisible Wounds. Combat Stress 7(3), American Institute of Stress.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Connie Baptiste is a proud Desert Storm/Desert Shield, Post 9/11 Air Force retiree with combined 20 years of service in Active Duty, Air Force Reserve and Georgia Air National Guard. Born and raised in Georgia with a strong dedication to everything Georgia and military, she is a Business Owner of multiple businesses and an Award-winning Chef. She is a 2017 Graduate of The Hotel School of Cornell SC Johnson College of Business, EBV Program.

Her current philanthropic endeavors include but are not limited to:  Chief Operating Officer, Women Veteran Social Justice Network, Inc.; Vice President, Federally Employed Women Greater Atlanta Chapter, Executive Board Member, Warrior Songs Organization; and Military Ministry Leader at Tabernacle of Praise Church International. Connie is a Recipient of the 2019 Album of the Year, Wisconsin Area Music Industry, for her original song she recorded on Warrior Songs, Vol. 2, Women at War.

 

Combat Stress Magazine

Combat Stress magazine is written with our military Service Members, Veterans, first responders, and their families in mind. We want all of our members and guests to find contentment in their lives by learning about stress management and finding what works best for each of them. Stress is unavoidable and comes in many shapes and sizes. It can even be considered a part of who we are. Being in a state of peaceful happiness may seem like a lofty goal but harnessing your stress in a positive way makes it obtainable. Serving in the military or being a police officer, firefighter or paramedic brings unique challenges and some extraordinarily bad days. The American Institute of Stress is dedicated to helping you, our Heroes and their families, cope with and heal your mind and body from the stress associated with your careers and sacrifices.

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