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The Story of the VA Legacy Song Group

This is an article written by Ian McCartor about the VA Legacy Song Group. Ian is the founding songwriter of the group, and wrote this in hopes to welcome you into the personal backstory of this special service.

Our Story

The Eye of a Soldier


It was a sunny afternoon in San Diego, and I was sitting with an old soldier.

A veteran in his nineties, one of the few remaining from World War II.

He wanted to pass along a powerful lesson that carried him over the course of his long life.


It all began as a day of war in the waters of Japan upon a small island shaped like a crooked carrot.

Barely an adult, he found himself praying to survive just one more day. Just one more day.


It was in the heat of crossfire that he bolted through the middle of the battle zone.

Bullets were ripping past him - jungle debris and smoke thick in the atmosphere.

A grenade exploded next to him. As he tried to roll away from it, a rough shard ripped through his eye, rendering it blind. Hot blood rolled down his face and he was ordered to retreat back to the ship for medical care.


Just like that, his life changed course and the lesson was ready to begin.


A brilliant physician was aboard this ship bound for Pearl Harbor.

This talented man was as much a philosopher as he was a doctor, assigning nine of the soldiers with wounded vision as roommates with nine soldiers who were also injured, but totally blind.


So, this young one-eyed soldier was to be the eye of his blind brother.


Day and night for the duration of that journey across the ocean, he helped his comrade eat, drink, bathe, use the bathroom and dress.  He recalled how taking care of that man allowed him to "see" how fortunate he really was.

He still had the gift of sight, even more-so with the enlightened perspective gained by helping his new friend.


Years later down the road, this man lost his beloved wife of many years. He was deeply stricken with grief when she died, but the lesson from aboard that ship called him to step forward.

He poured himself into volunteering in hospice, allowing altruism to heal his broken heart. He had served there for years, and then when he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, still chose to remain there as a companion to others who shared his fate.


Profoundly inspired by his story, I wrote a song for him called "Eye of a Soldier" and performed it at a remembrance event hosted by The Hospice of the North Coast. At that time we both served there. To all those people at the event that had lost loved ones, I shared his example of exemplary service. His song and his interview are on the legacy album "Star".


A therapist was present and heard this song. She came up to me after the event and said, "We need this at the VA. Let's talk".


How it all started

The VA had not explored this specific musical service before, so we had a bit of pioneering to do as we wrote up the first agreement. Soon after I was officially deemed a "legacy songwriter" and I was excited to have my first government contract.


This initiated our first chapter with the hospice and palliative division at the VA of La Jolla, writing songs inspired by the stories of veterans in their final days. This particular division of work is something I discuss more specifically in other articles, having to do with working with those at the end of life. However, this path eventually led us to a different application within the VA - allowing the creation of song to bring forth a new level of healing to those who have suffered loss.


Little did I know that this work was going to hit pretty close to home as we continued marching down this road...

After some months of interviewing and writing songs for veterans on hospice, my therapist partner asked how I would feel if we started working with a couple of people who had lost loved ones.

I still remember that initial meeting like it was yesterday.

We met over a video call, as it was the middle of the pandemic. Although we were looking at each other on computer screens, there was something so powerful in that introductory session. We all could all testify to the excitement and bonding over this newfound greater purpose.


These mothers had recently both suffered the loss of their sons to suicide. They also both desired to somehow heal this incredible pain, and wanted to learn how to navigate this heartache that threatened to break them.


Over the course of several months, we really got to know these wonderful women and through them, their sons. This delicate process not only helped acknowledge their pain, but indeed celebrated the precious love and beauty of their mother-son relationships.


The two songs, "Be Water" and "Follow Phoenix" hold several layers of metaphors to be shared with their listeners.

The first point of view is the mothers speaking to the sons, the second is of the sons speaking to the mothers, and the third are the mothers speaking to other people who have suffered as they have. These songs act as hopeful beacons as their grief continues to be explored, allowing them to more swiftly turn in that direction of purpose when confronted with the torrential storms of disorienting pain.

As it all has grown to blossom with new group members and opportunities to connect with different therapeutic communities, we've seen how our "VA Legacy Song Group" provides this unique method of healing.


Our group currently includes people who have lost children, spouses, parents, siblings, friends, and some even close to giving up their own lives.

Within the combinations of these different relationships and losses, it's been cathartic and moving to see how this common thread connects each member of the group. Different insights and perspectives have led to a deeper understanding of each other, ourselves, and the ones we've lost.


The creation of a "Legacy Song" brings to life a powerful and poetic symbol for each member's healing journey.

Participants are encouraged to share stories and introduce us to this special person they've lost. In many ways, they bring that loved one back into the present moment as we celebrate all of who they still are. They end up discovering certain gifts left behind, and identify a surprising number of strengths to carry with them as they move forward. Floodgates of tears have opened - sometimes held tight for decades.


My clinical background as a Registered Nurse combined with our program's therapist and chaplain makes for a uniquely balanced collaboration.

Having a team of such expert support allows me the freedom of putting on my "songwriter hat" and focus on opportunities to listen creatively, identifying poetic moments within the breakthroughs.


We'll soon be coming up on four years of facilitating this program, and look forward to exploring even more new ways of expanding and sharing the growth that has come out of this powerful process of courageous expression. This year we began a new application of publicly sharing our songs through online streaming platforms. With this additional layer, the term "release" takes on a deeper meaning for all of us. The songs have limitless potential for being heard and shared countless times by not only those within our group, but by others all around the world. Through the release of these songs, we've been able to connect our message to thousands of people around the globe, including Brazil, the Philippines, Mexico, and even Australia! Knowing this brings another depth of meaning to it all, inspiring us for the good of those that will benefit from our stories of healing.


Our desire is that the messages of hope and encouragement behind each song, goes out to comfort those who face similar struggles.


The record label that currently distributes these songs, "Beautiful Emergence Records", holds a fitting name for the intention behind this work - that something inspirational can be born from tragedy. Each member has also contributed to the creation of their song's artwork so that they can express a visual component of their journey. This has led to an additional opportunity for sharing creative ideas to bond as a legacy family.

It wasn't until last year though, that this work totally came full circle and into my own family story.

The Head of the Spear


Before July 2022 I knew very little about my grandfather, except that he was a veteran of the Korean War who met a tragic end after returning home. My mother was only 8 years old at the time.

One summer afternoon at my family's yearly reunion, my uncle had a surprise for us. He had been arduously investigating his father's history and presented us with a shadow box packed with medals of achievement, photos, and written accounts of his admirable character from those who knew him.


My grandfather had served in a division of engineers known as "The Head of the Spear". These very courageous men would go in first, cutting through brush, risking surprise attack, building the roads through foreign land - many expected never to make it back home.

He was decorated with three bronze stars, and his surviving friends applauded his qualities of servanthood, generosity, and kindness.

My Grandpa Gene was finally coming to life as a noble hero in our hearts  - beyond the shadow of the tragic occurrence that had so long loomed over and dominated his legacy.


A personally striking discovery was that my grandfather also co-wrote a song that was published right here in Hollywood!

In 1950 that was monumental - as it was incredibly complicated and involved to accomplish back then. I was amazed to find that I came from the direct bloodline of both a songwriter and a soldier.


Back in those days, PTSD didn't receive the kind of attention it does today. After suffering the loss of his entire brigade to sniper attacks, he would promptly be stamped with "shell shock" and sent home to handle it on his own.

Left to cope with few resources, he eventually withdrew, overwhelmed by the beast now known as survivor's guilt. It pains me to think of the creative potential nestled deep within his heart as he suffered, locked away in isolation and grief...


I have wondered if our VA Legacy Song Group could have been a saving grace for him, had it existed back then. Something tells me it would have been.


After this precious glimpse of history in one of our weekly meetings, the members suggested we invite my mother to join.


Immediately, there was an overwhelming analogy that came from the whole story.


Straight from "The Head of the Spear", my mother had received new orders to move forward, to build a road through threatening territory. However, from what we had learned, the spear is only made strong by its backing support. If left to advance on its own, broken and shaft-less, it deflects off the resistance of the opposing obstacle. Her father tried his best to carry on alone. He sadly lost, shattered against the stone.

But now, she has found her battalion, and can confidently move forward through lands that were at one time so frightening. She carries with her now a profound sense of duty, knowing how it might have been different for her father if he had found help, or had such help reach out to him.


Since then I've seen my mother begin to explore and heal her 50 year holding pattern of grief, now able to venture into the great unknown alongside those she truly relies upon and trusts. She is bearing the torch her brother lit with his respectful devotion to learn more of who their father truly was, adding to the map with the stars he left behind.


Through the songs written in the VA Legacy Song Group, we hope to bring forth examples of new alternatives for exploring those pathways to healing. We are building a warm and welcoming bridge, allowing members to freely share and thoughtfully articulate their stories - documented for the sake of inspiration, restoring faith, and serving others.


As we continue to learn from this work, I often think of the one-eyed soldier from the beginning of the story. I imagine him hanging out with my grandpa, watching what we're doing, proud and singing along with every song.

What we've learned

Over the course of our program, we've grown together at a steady pace, seeing how our progress is preparing us all for an even greater service as the years go by. This eagerness to give with what we've learned is another important key to the healing success of this group.


We've learned that listening - REALLY listening, is foundational to cultivating true compassion and understanding. It begins with listening to each other, and then in listening to ourselves as we relate and connect to what is shared.


A spiritual and philosophical union continues to be present in the creation of these songs. We are each other's teachers. We grant each other the honor of deeply meditating on the most powerful subjects of human life. Love and loss, suffering and transcendence, the beautiful truths of what it really means to be alive.


People often ask me, "How do you manage your emotions doing this work? Doesn't being connected to all that grief every day burn you out?" Sure, there are days when this work builds up and feels particularly heavy - I've often wept during the course of writing these songs, but the steadfast examples of those in the group who choose to still show up and give, even when they are at their worst, inspires me to maintain strength and a devoted heart of service.


The creation of something new for the purpose of expressing and connecting another is what begins to release the burden. The newly written song is the flower that comes after the rain, and provides a refreshing shift from the inside out, allowing that energy to go forth, transformed.


This work has been a journey of progressive and experimental blending of several specific fields, so patience and creativity have definitely been necessary to carry out the task over the years. There's so much yet to learn and explore, and we're excited to do it together.


Our vision


It's our hope that in life's deepest waters, more legacies are born and become beautiful ripples that naturally multiply as we skim stones on the surface.

Opportunities like this article are important for telling the story - so we appreciate the window here to share.

If you would like to support this work and be a part of what we're doing, or learn more , please visit for ways to get in touch, stay updated, and listen to the new songs.


Thank you,

Ian McCartor and the VA Legacy Song Group

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