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Reworking Trauma: Mary Gauthier Tells Veteran Stories On 'Rifles & Rosary Beads'

Gauthier's ninth studio album, <em>Rifles & Rosary Beads</em><em>,</em> is the singer's first co-written project. She calls it her best.
Laura E. Partain
Courtesy of the artist
Gauthier's ninth studio album, Rifles & Rosary Beads, is the singer's first co-written project. She calls it her best.

Mary Gauthier is no stranger to the gut punch. The lyrical precision on the folk singer's first eight studio albums is testament to her ability to transform her own trauma into a purposeful and communal narrative.

On her latest project, Rifles & Rosary Beads, Gauthier shifts the subject to tell the stories of American veterans by employing the voices of those who have served. The Nashville singer-songwriter worked in collaboration with the nonprofit SongwritingWith:Soldiers to co-write the album's 11 tracks with veterans and their families.

Former U.S. Army Sergeant Joshua Geartz is not a songwriter by trade, but he gives plenty of punch on "Still On The Ride," a song he and Gauthier wrote together about Geartz's best friend who died when they were in Germany.

"I shouldn't be here / You shouldn't be gone," Gauthier sings. "But it's not up to me / Who dies and who carries on."

Gauthier hopes her album will help bridge what she sees as a "civilian-military divide" in the United States, too often buried in politics to prioritize the lives and health of veterans.

<em>Rifles & Rosary Beads </em>is available now via Thirty Tigers.
Thirty Tigers / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Rifles & Rosary Beads is available now via Thirty Tigers.

While writing with Gauthier, Geartz says he found himself telling her things he "had never told anyone." Together, they reworked a traumatic memory into a healing reminder: "I sit in my room / I close my eyes / Me and my guardian angel / We're still on the ride."

"Instead of 'Why me?' you know, 'Why am I still here and he's gone?' I kind of look at it now as my second chance," Geartz says. "Not only for [my life,] but now, I get to live for him, too." Hear Scott Simon's interview with Mary Gauthier and Sergeant Geartz at the audio link, and read an edited transcript below.

Scott Simon: What drew you to this project?

Mary Gauthier: Well, I was invited to do a retreat about four and a half years ago with SongwritingWith:Soldiers, and as I sat and listened to the stories I was told, it just moved me to the core. Something clicked in my heart and in my brain, and I knew [I had] stepped into something incredibly beautiful.

Simon: Sergeant Geartz, tell us about your service. I gather you enlisted in 1999.

Joshua Geartz: Yes, sir. I joined in November of 1999 and served to November of 2004. I was a military police officer and I deployed to Kosovo in 2000 and Iraq in 2003.

Simon: And you suffered an injury in Iraq, didn't you?

Geartz: Yes, sir. My vehicle that I was driving was struck with a roadside bomb the night before I left the country. ... Dealing with all of [that] brought me into a really dark place where I had attempted suicide in 2014. Fortunately, it didn't work. I realize now how blessed I really am, and sitting with Mary kind of gave me a different perspective.

Simon: The song "Still On The Ride" refers to your best friend, who lost his life in combat. What happened?

Geartz: I lost him to a vehicle accident. I was supposed to be in the vehicle with him, and last minute I actually made him stop in the middle of the road and let me out. Just like anyone else that goes through a hardship, you know, you play the "what if" game. My experience with Mary and SongwritingWith:Soldiers taught me not to dwell on that — not "what if," but "now what."

Simon: Mary Gauthier, what was Sergeant Geartz like when you first met him?

Gauthier: When I first met Josh, he was in a lot of pain, pouring off of his being. And when we sat down to write, it was scrambled eggs for a while; trying to connect the dots was so hard 'cause Josh has been through so much. But when we stumbled into this notion that a dead soldier is a guardian angel — and maybe guardian angels are dead soldiers, still doing their work and protecting us — it reframes the story of Josh's loss. And I think the power of songwriting is we can take a story of trauma and rework the ending.

Mary Gauthier and U.S. Army Sergeant Joshua Geartz met in his hometown of Buffalo, NY.
Mary Gauthier / Courtesy of the artist
Courtesy of the artist
Mary Gauthier and U.S. Army Sergeant Joshua Geartz met in his hometown of Buffalo, NY.

Simon: Joshua Geartz, did you ever say to Mary, "That's too personal" or "Please, I'd rather not?"

Geartz: No, that never happened. During our songwriting session, I ended up telling Mary things that I had never told anyone: family members, my wife, no one knew, and here I am with a stranger, and I was able to tell her everything.

Gauthier: I think each veteran's soul has something that it needs to say. I know from my own personal traumas, it's very hard to know what that is. But when I'm watching someone else struggle, it's not as confusing for me, 'cause it's not my struggle, so I can help identify that.

Simon: May I ask what the two of you learned from each other?

Gauthier: Well, I've learned our soldiers are so much like everybody else. They're just put into an extreme situation.

Geartz: I've learned that being honest and open about yourself isn't as scary as it seems, and that it's okay to have faith in people again.

Simon: Your faith in people was also a casualty of war?

Geartz: Yes, sir.

Simon: There are some who consider this a cliché, but: Thank you for your service.

Geartz: Thank you for your support.

Web editor Sidney Madden and web intern Stefanie Fernández contributed to this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ian (pronounced "yahn") Stewart is a producer and editor for Weekend Edition and Up First.