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Shuffle: Project D.R.E.W. Helps Veterans Heal Through Song

Editor's note: This is an encore of a Shuffle that originally ran Feb. 1.

Music is being used as a healing tool for some Northeast Ohio veterans. For this week’s Shuffle, we hear about a new project that pairs songwriters with soldiers.

On a recent Sunday afternoon in Avon Lake, a handful of veterans and their families gathered for a concert -- just for them.

The performance was the culmination of a weekend workshop called Project D.R.E.W., Delivering Restorative Energy to our Warriors. A veteran shares his or her journey with a musician, who writes a song about their experiences and performs it for them the next day.  

Eric Manicsic, 37, of Lorain sat quietly beside his wife, as Cleveland songwriter Brent Kirby walked on the stage with his acoustic guitar to perform “I Should Be There.”

Manicsic served four tours with the Army’s 82nd Airborne in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, he works as a Lorain police officer. His chief encouraged him to participate in the workshop, but he says he was skeptical.

"If you can express something I haven’t been able to do in 12 years to my family and loved ones, that’d be really impressive. One story led to another and he was taking notes and somehow managed to compile all that into a song," Manicsic says. 

Eric Manicsic and songwriter Brent Kirby
Credit Amanda Rabinowitz
37-year-old veteran Eric Manicsic of Lorain (left) and Cleveland songwriter Brent Kirby

Adjusting to civilian life
Songwriter Kirby said the song he wrote describes Manicsic's struggle of adjusting to civilian life.

"Going from being somebody who has rules of battle and being in war and coming home where there’s laws and then you have family," Kirby says. "[He was] feeling like he wanted to be elsewhere when he needed to be here. It was a lot to balance."

Kirby, with tears in his eyes, says that for him, the experience was challenging and enlightening.

"I got home and sat in front of all my notes with my guitar and I was just looking at all of it. I really tried hard to put (in) all the different elements and put those different stories, even if it was just a little snippet or a little image of it."  

The inspiration of Project D.R.E.W.
Project D.R.E.W. is named after Drew Ferguson, an Avon Lake-native Army veteran who died by suicide last year at age 34. Ferguson was a painter, poet and songwriter. His cousin, Mike Winnen of Twinsburg, believed Drew’s passion for music could help other struggling veterans.

"One of the things he really enjoyed is the aspect of just the community of it, the unity and just getting people together. I can see him being quietly touched and I could see him tearing up along with us."

Army veteran Drew Ferguson of Avon Lake died by suicide last year at age 33.

Winnen co-founded Project D.R.E.W. with Marilyn Zeidner, who runs Music on a Mission, a nonprofit that uses music as outreach to seniors and people with disabilities.

Zeidner says her daughter was close with Drew in high school, and Drew continued to donate to her organization when he returned from active duty. She holds the workshops at Barnegie Hall, a private music venue that she runs on her Avon Lake property. She says she’s amazed the impact the veterans project has had.

"Their wives said, 'It took them 40 years to tell me that story.' It takes their experience and makes it universal instead of their personal wound," she says. 

Helping others
Eric Manicsic hopes the song he helped write with Brent Kirby can comfort other veterans. 

"I wanted it to be to where it hit other people as well. And I think he did a great job of doing that as I can tell with other people in the crowd crying as well."

Project D.R.E.W. has several more workshops planned over the next few months. 

Amanda Rabinowitz is the host of “All Things Considered” on Ideastream Public Media.