ARLINGTON, Va., -- Imagine listening to the radio and hearing a song you wrote and recorded. Never in a million years would retired U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Donnie Isaacs have thought that would happen to him ... but it did.
"I never thought my singing and music playing would reach past the front porch of my Eastern Kentucky home," the new recording artist said with a laugh. It happened by a twist of fate that sent Isaacs to the Warrior Transition Unit, Fort Belvoir, Virginia in February 2016.
After a year-long deployment in 2008 to Afghanistan, Isaacs knew he was suffering mental health issues. "I was having some depression issues and [post-traumatic stress disorder] issues that I was not comfortable getting help for during my process of trying to climb the ladder of success. I certainly didn't want to ding myself in any way or make myself look vulnerable like I couldn't do my job."
Isaacs, enlisted in the Army in April 1987, is not alone in this thought process. According to the National Council for Behavior Health, 30 percent of active duty and Army Reserve military personnel having served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from mental health issues and only 50 percent of them ever receive mental health treatment for that very reason.
Isaacs said he turned to alcohol to ease his depression, but it started to interfere with his career and family life. He suffered in silence for eight years until a friend told him about the WTU to which his leadership wholeheartedly supported him and helped transfer him there to get help. "I have to give the Army kudos for putting these programs into place to let us get some help," said Isaacs who credits the WTU with truly understanding his mental health issues. "What's great about the program is that they have enough counselors there that you get plenty of one--on-one time that you truly need," said Isaacs.
While he was nearing the end of his almost 30 year career in the Army, going through the recover and overcome phase of his journey, he found himself singing for fun at open mic nights around Northern Virginia. Then one night after a show someone from the Center for American Military Music Opportunities, or CAMMO, who heard him sing, as well as his story, gave him a card to inform him about the program.
"As fate would have it and as God would have it, Cathie Lechareas found out I was at the WTU and she immediately sought me out for their program. She has been a savior," Isaacs said. CAMMO allows active duty military and veterans to work in music and use their skills and talents. It can be particularly helpful for those trying to recover and overcome their issues through music as therapy. In Isaacs' case the singing and writing workshops give positive reinforcement, hope and confidence.
Navy Veteran Cathie Lechareas co-founded the program at Fort Belvoir. "We allow for a safe place for military/veterans to share their story, or just hang out with us. I've seen Donnie grow a great deal," she said, adding that the program does not require any musical talent. Having a love for music and wanting to be around it is requirement enough.
CAMMO is also responsible for turning out the season 14 America's Got Talent top five-finalist quartet group "Voices of Service" on NBC. Retired Staff Sgt. Ron Henry of the quartet found solace in CAMMO like Isaacs did.
Isaacs himself performed on the big stage during the Invictus Games 2016 in Orlando, Florida, an international Paralympic-style adaptive sporting event for wounded, ill and injured Soldiers of allied nations hosted by HRH the Duke of Sussex.
"Cathie and the folks at CAMMO wanted me to grow as an artist and it was an amazing opportunity they encouraged. They wanted me to understand that people do repair themselves and they move forward and they make the most of their lives with what they have and there is not a better example of that than the Invictus Games."
Isaacs's new song "Duffle Bags" is on the radio and on YouTube. It's a song he co-wrote with L.G. Richardson from personal experiences. The writing experience at CAMMO he says was the confidence boost he needed to get him into this music stratosphere he never imagined he would be in. His twist of fate into the WTU and music have given him a new lease on life while he tours radio stations around the country telling his story. He always includes this message for Soldiers who might be listening.
"Get the help early, don't do like I did and wait. Get that help, stay focused and know you are not alone. Find a battle buddy to lean on and share your nightmares and demons and get to a WTU."