Country Star Jimmie Allen Helps Combat Vet Write Powerful Song to Find Healing: 'I Was In a Dark Cave'

CreatiVets, a Nashville-based program, connects veterans with songwriters to transform the pain of war into music

On a recent winter day in a writers' studio in Nashville, country star Jimmie Allen is leaning back in an armchair holding a guitar and humming, while two fellow songwriters nearby trade lines and guitar licks. The scene looks like it could be another hit-making session for the Grammy-nominated "Freedom Was a Highway" singer, but on this day, Allen is there to help tell a war story — a real one.

At the center of the group sits U.S. Army veteran KC Shaw, a 41-year-old former master sergeant who spent 20 years fighting in Iraq and slipping unnoticed into battle zones as a member of the special operations forces.

He began his two-decade military career, he tells the musicians, as an idealistic recruit who enlisted the day after 9/11, but over the years became a broken soldier, damaged by the carnage of war, losing friends and a sense of self. Once back home, he had to pick up the pieces. "It was like I was in a deep, dark, cave and didn't know how to get out," says Shaw of his lowest point. "It felt like the easiest way to get rid of that pain is to end yourself."

The story is all too familiar to Richard Casper, an Iraq combat vet himself and co-founder of CreatiVets, the program that brought Shaw from his Baltimore home to Music City to write a song based on his service.

Jimmie Allen Helps Combat Vet
Jimmie Allen and KC Shaw. Jason Myers

Each day, 17 veterans in the United States die by suicide, according to a report released last year by the Department of Veterans Affairs, a shocking number that Casper is determined to lower by helping vets like Shaw, who has suffered traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress along with suicidal thoughts, to heal through the arts.

Jimmie Allen Helps Combat Vet
Jimmie Allen, KC Shaw Brian White. Jason Myers

"With all these injuries—physical, psychological, moral—it's trying to find a positive way of looking at their stories. Songwriting helps repurpose memories," says Casper, 37, whose own struggles with TBI and post-traumatic stress left him suicidal until he began creating sculpture and music. "Art and music can save veterans' lives. It changed me."

Since it was launched in 2013, CreatiVets has helped more than 850 veterans through its songwriting and other arts programs.

For more on Allen's songwriting journey with Shaw, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

For Shaw, who finally found help through both traditional and art therapy as well as medication after losing two Army friends to suicide in 2019, the songwriting experience is one more step toward a healthier life — and a way to spread the message that things can get better.

"After the Army, you don't know who you are anymore," he says. "I'm just starting to figure it out."

Jimmie Allen Helps Combat Vet
KC Shaw. courtesy kC Shaw

In the writers' room, Casper sits near Shaw, acting as a "battle buddy" to provide support if needed— all the vets who go through the CreatiVets program are paired with a fellow vet as a peer mentor. Meanwhile, Allen is joined by songwriter Tate Howell and Brian White, a longtime Nashville writer who has penned hits for Jason Aldean and Rodney Akins. Together, the trio are listening to Shaw describe his first months on the ground in Iraq in 2003, when a fellow soldier died in a the truck that was blown up.

"One minute he was there, and the next you're picking up body parts like it's nothing," says Shaw, who retired from the Army in 2021 and now works for a technology company. "You get so used to almost dying that it becomes second nature."

Desperate for a change, Shaw joined the special operation forces, but that work caused a different sort of wound: "I spent so much time being someone else, I forgot who I was."

The trauma of combat and covert missions left hidden scars that revealed themselves in outbursts when he was stateside with his wife and their family.

Jimmie Allen Helps Combat Vet
KC Shaw. courtesy kC Shaw

For Allen, whose father is a veteran, Shaw's experiences ring true. "We send people overseas and teach them to kill to protect yourself and your country," he says. "You can't come back and expect things to be different without proper help."

Over the next two hours, Shaw's story is woven into a song, later titled "Find Me Again". The chorus echoes Shaw's own hopeful vision for the future:

I wanna be a man that ain't giving up

Who ain't running when things get tough

Lover, father, son and brother

A man who's a damn good friend

Just trying to find me again

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Watching the song take shape, Shaw is struck by how well it's captured his story. "I have my bad days, but I'm trying to be that light, and not just for myself," he says.

Even after vets like Shaw return home, their songs resonate, says Casper: "I've had a veteran tell me that the song he wrote kept him alive. He listened to it every day."

Jimmie Allen Helps Combat Vet
Jimmie Allen and KC Shaw. Jason Myers

Many of the veterans' songs — some of which were written or recorded by Nashville names like Love & Theft, Craig Campbell and Vince Gill — are available to download or stream through the CreatiVets website (proceeds go toward CreatiVets programs). Shaw's will be available there soon.

White, who has volunteered with CreatiVets for nearly five years, says the experience can be profound for the vets who go through it. "I've seen military men and women with a tough outer shell weep," White says. "It's a place for healing to begin."

For confidential support, vets and loved ones can contact the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 or text 838255.

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