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While Sean Ward has chosen to stay in, nearly 1.4 million men and women have left the military since serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. A group of musicians in San Marcos, Texas, just down the highway from Austin, has started a songwriting workshop for returning veterans.

As NPR's John Burnett reports, they believe composing music can help heal the wounds of war.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Buddy Lee Dobberteen has a new song to show his teacher.

BUDDY LEE DOBBERTEEN: My fingers are really kind of sore; I was doing it for a while today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DUSTIN WELCH: Maybe try it without the pick just because...

DOBBERTEEN: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

WELCH: You were banging on it pretty hard earlier. I just want to get the words a little bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BURNETT: The beefy former Marine is a regular at the weekly songwriters' circle at Cheatham Street Warehouse, a renowned club in San Marcos that smells of ashtrays and spilled beer.

DOBBERTEEN: (Singing) There's a guy in a jail cell, charges been filed. This town ain't seen a crime, this in a long while...

BURNETT: Dobberteen is a 31-year-old, former platoon sergeant who's trying to fashion a life back home after three tours in Iraq. Wounded by a roadside bomb and rifle fire, he says he's 100 percent disabled and suffering from traumatic brain injury, PTSD and multiple injuries.

For five years, Sergeant Dobberteen survived the war in Iraq. Now, Buddy Lee wants to write a good song. His current teacher is an up-and-coming Austin singer-songwriter named Dustin Welch, who offers constructive criticism.

WELCH: Yeah, I was going to say I don't even think you need that last verse, really.

DOBBERTEEN: Maybe take the last two and combine them into one or...

WELCH: I don't think you need it, yeah.

BURNETT: Part of Dobberteen's life is found in his tattoos. "Grunt" is on his right, inner forearm; on his left leg, a Marine raider logo. "Mama's Boy" is down the back of both arms and on his left wrist, "Johnny Cash."

DOBBERTEEN: My goal is to become a professional songwriter in the business. Actually, my goal is to help other veterans find - to realize you don't need to sit in your room with a handgun. You know, there's a better life out there for you to live. You know, your life wasn't over in Iraq. It just gave you a helluva lot of songs. You know?

BURNETT: Dobberteen lives with his wife, Tyra, a schoolteacher, in the hill country west of San Marcos. He drives to the VA Hospital in San Antonio periodically for continuing operations on his hand, shoulder and knee. Because the bomb blast injured his eyes, he wears dark glasses even in the dim bar.

DOBBERTEEN: I wanted to be a career Marine, and it didn't work out. It's funny because God actually told me I was going to write songs, and I didn't have the ability. So I was like, you know, how am I ever going to write a song?

BURNETT: This project has come to be known as Voices of a Grateful Nation. One of the project's co-founders is Charlie Gallagher, a drummer and real estate broker.

CHARLIE GALLAGHER: I felt like it was critically important, when we went into the war, that when these boys came home, that we did something we didn't do for my friends that came back from Vietnam.

BURNETT: About 30 vets have come through the songwriting workshop in its four years of existence. Most have accepted a free guitar, listened to some pointers from the pros, and drifted off.

WELCH: A lot of them are pretty beat up.

BURNETT: Mentor Dustin Welch is at the club every Monday night, to work with the vets who want to learn how to compose a song.

WELCH: You know, it's a way of talking about this stuff without having to stand up and be feeling like they're pouring their heart out or, you know, be sitting on a couch talking to a therapist or anything.

BURNETT: Buddy Lee Dobberteen is the most successful and ambitious student the songwriters' workshop has had. He's using the GI Bill to take an online class in studio production with the Berklee College of Music. He's a passionate songwriter, and he fronts his own band. It's a far cry from his mental state when he left the Marine Corps and moved to Texas.

DOBBERTEEN: Like I literally wanted to commit suicide. And, you know, I'm productive. You know, like I'm - next week, I'm going on tour. You know, I was - the only other tour I was doing is, is from bar to bar trying drink all the beer out of the bars at night, you know, raising hell, you know? Now I got a purpose. What more could you ask for out of an organization?

BURNETT: Here's Buddy Lee and the Backroad Band, performing his song "Soldier's Prayer."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOLDIER'S PRAYER")

BUDDY LEE AND THE BACKROAD BAND: (Singing) They give their all 24/7. Hoping if they die, they make it to heaven.

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOLDIER'S PRAYER")

BUDDY LEE AND THE BACKROAD BAND: (Singing) The soldier's prayer is for peace. To see their homes again would be a relief. We take for granted what they do. They risk their lives for me and you.

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