World War II veteran Jim Wooters may be gone, but his story will be heard loud and clear on Veterans Day.
On Saturday, Bob Regan, a 69-year-old Nashville songwriter, will pick up his guitar at the World War II Memorial and sing about Wooters, who died on Sept. 1.
Regan, a co-founder of Operation Song, spearheads a non-profit organization based in Nashville that has told more than 500 stories in song since 2012. The organization pairs professional songwriters with veterans, active duty military members and their families to help them tell their stories through song.
Last April, Regan and his fellow songwriters were at Warrior Outreach, a Harris County ranch operated by retired Command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Rhodes.
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It was there that Regan and Wil Nance met Wooters. Nance, an accomplished songwriter who wrote Brad Paisley’s 2009 smash hit “She’s Everything,” spent a day with Wooters and put to music the 95-year-old veteran’s story of service on D-Day and throughout the war.
The result was “USS Arkansas.”
“I love that song and I loved Mr. Wooters,” Regan said. “He was a wonderful gentleman. That was one of the high points of last year for me, getting to meet Mr. Wooters and seeing his song be written and doing a little video of the song.”
There is a line in the song that gives Regan pause: “It is the unknown that makes us afraid, we all knew we were going to die.”
“That was straight from Jim’s lips,” Regan said. “All Wil did, and in this case brilliantly, was take what he said, change it around and make it sing. ‘It is the unknown that makes us afraid, we all knew we were going to die.’ To me, that answers a question I have always had about how do soldiers, back through history, stand shoulder by shoulder and march into battle.”
Operation Song makes an annual trip to Warrior Outreach to work with soldiers and their spouses. Last year, Nona Christie, a coordinator of a songwriter’s group, got Wooters and Marine Corps veteran Tony Barriga into the process. The two veterans live at Covenant Woods, a Columbus senior living community where Christie is the community relations representative.
Christie said she loves “USS Arkansas” because of the story it tells about Wooters and history.
“In his song, they talk about the nylon flag,” Christie said. “Nylon had just come out then. And when he talks about the lights and the bombs hitting the nylon flag, that means a lot to him in his song, ‘USS Arkansas.’”
Two years ago, Christie helped write “D Day Plus One,” a song about World War II veteran Charile Maupin, also a Covenant Woods resident. That song was included on one of the Operation Song CD releases.
Christie has been touched by the songwriters, she said.
“The first thing that impressed me was these men do not need to do this,” Christie said. “They can go sit in a room in Nashville, write a song and make lots of money. They do it out of the love in their hearts for our soldiers. Most of the one they write about are soldiers with PTSD. These are the first three veterans they have written with.”
Back in the spring, Barriga poured out his heart to Nashville songwritrer Regie Hamm, who put the words into a song called “Stand Up.”
It is a powerful story of survival because Barriga, a Korean War veteran, has been sitting in a wheelchair since 1968. The song talks about Barriga’s athletic exploits while being confined to that wheelchair.
“I had to sit down in this chair to stand that tall, I had to pick myself up so high I refused to fall,” the song goes.
But that’s not the part that chokes up Barriga. Every time he hears the song, he cries when his grandchildren are mentioned.
“They don’t see me as a handicapped person,” Barriga said. “They see me as a real person. Everything they do, I do with them.”
These are highly regarded songwriters involved in the project. Regan has written hits for artists including Keith Urban, Jake Owen, Trisha Yearwood, Reba McIntyre, Tanya Tucker and Lee Greenwood.
Now, Regan is looking for a way to use his writing skills for good and to understand those who have a war story to share.
“My dad, Tom Regan, was a World War II veteran and he passed away when I was young, and I never got to talk to him about that,” Regan said. “In some small way, this is a chance for me to reach out to that generation and use my skill set and transfer a little of his spirit through me.”
Then a story becomes a song like “USS Arkansas.”
“Most of these veterans — and really anybody — just want their story told,” Regan said. “They want something that will encapsulate what they have been through and their spirit. To me, ‘USS Arkansas’ did that extremely well.”