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PTSD Camp

Somewhere in between 2016 and 2018, my former band was booked at a PTSD camp in Arizona. It was somewhere near Kingston, that’s all I remember. If you looked on a map you would think that we played in the middle of the desert. Literally, in the middle of it. It is absolutely insane that we had this experience, allow me to explain…

I did not know what a PTSD camp was. Management said we were playing at a private party for veterans. As I drove all of us out into the Abyss, we realized that this was no ordinary gig. Let’s flashback to the beginning of that night.

I am driving down a road made of big rocks. Not boulders, but big rocks, maybe the size of watermelons. Is this the right way? It says so on the GPS. I am driving 5 mph. 20 minutes later I pull up to the front of a campground, about 10 or so tents are scattered across the area. “Well guys” I say to the band, “This is it.”

There are 4 of us in the group, and we begin setting up our gear on what looks like a stage. After the instruments and amps are set up, we start soundchecking. Halfway through the first song the power drops out. The leader of the camp doesn’t know what’s wrong, but we soon figure out that his generator cannot provide enough power. It is being overworked and shuts down. At this point, the singer is getting frustrated, and I’m thinking. Why is he frustrated? This is clearly not our issue. Some people do not deal well with roadblocks and things not going according to plan. The singer is a prime example of that. Maybe he has worked on himself…

The PTSD camp leader (let’s call him Jeff) decides we can perform acoustically. We say yes, that would be great. We can all sit around the campfire and play some music. Another roadblock, we need an acoustic guitar. Jeff says he has one in that old shed by the stage. This guitar has clearly been sitting in that shed for months. The dust and heat have rendered it almost useless, but somehow the guitarist and bassist find a way to make it work. At this point I have realized that the people at this camp do not have any standards. They just want some music and people they can relate to. It doesn’t matter if it’s a 5 star rock concert or a dingy old guitar being knocked against the dirt. It’s the feeling they want. They want the connection, the talent. We are larger than life to them.

50 people have gathered around the campfire, eagerly waiting to hear us perform our rock rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. I am playing body percussion on my legs, the guitarist and bassist are playing the worn out acoustic stringed instruments, and the singer begins. Oh say can you see…

He didn’t get too far past that. All of a sudden he stops singing. Me and the others continue to vamp, seeing if he will come back in with the next line, but he continues to stand there, frozen. He starts to get overwhelmed and begins tearing up. Maybe it is the power of that moment, being in such an intimate environment, surrounded by his fellow veterans. Maybe he realizes how fucked up he is and that as a 45 year old man, he is currently singing in the middle of nowhere to 50 people he does not know, nor will he probably ever see again. Maybe he realizes his dream to be a rockstar is fading fast, and father time is catching up with him. It could be all of these things at once. And so, he starts weeping. The other veterans begin to sing, and they all start to walk over and give Rio a group hug. It really was one of the most beautiful moments I have seen. We all sing the national anthem together and the vets begin to cheer. The party commences…

After a few more live performances, the vets are passing around some party favors: Moonshine,  fat joints, and probably some other things that I did not get a good look at. I took a puff of the joint and I was elevated, which leads to the next series of events.

Apparently this PTSD camp has a giant pole in it. According to Jeff it is the world’s largest stripper pole. I don’t know what comes over me, but clearly I need to let out all of this energy and frustration that has been building up, so I request a song by the Deftones (Change in the House of Flies) and proceed to the pole. As if I am possessed, I perform a dance routine that gets the entire crowd riled up. My bandmates are flabbergasted. “Sam, where the hell did that come from!?” I am a mysterious person…

About an hour passes by, and I realize we need to get back to the hotel. The band definitely agrees, and we all say our goodbyes and start driving down the big rocky road to get home. We are scared that a tire will pop, or some crazy animals will come out of the darkness and wreck our vehicle. Luckily none of this happens, and we find a paved road to take us to the hotel. “What just happened?” we all say to each other.

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