By Marcella Jones | Photographed by Kaia Calhoun
Songwriting can be a difficult process, particularly if collaborating with a non-musician. But when Shawndell Marks was asked to write a song with Sister Linda McClenahan, Marks didn’t hesitate, despite the taboo subject matter filled with extreme pain and anger—that of military sexual trauma. She accepted the job despite the fact that two other songwriters had already tried to tackle writing the song and had to walk away.
Last year Marks was approached by Warrior Songs founder Jason Moon to write and perform McClenahan’s “Sister Sarge” for the CD compilation “Women At War: Warrior Songs Vol. 2,” to be released Nov. 10. A national nonprofit organization based in Madison, Warrior Songs’ mission is to facilitate healing among U.S. military veterans by using songwriting and the arts as vehicles. Their Story To Song program pairs military vets with professional songwriters and musicians, producing a CD compilation every two years. Of the 15 songs on “Women At War,” seven were written or performed by Madison area female musicians.
At 18, McClenahan postponed becoming a nun, choosing to “first give three years of my life to serve my country in Vietnam.” There she was gang raped by three of her fellow soldiers. Afterwards, “dumped like trash on the side of the road,” she refused to go to the hospital, feeling the victim’s guilt that it was somehow her fault. Her caring Women’s Army Corps captain ultimately advised her to “just forget it” for her own sake. She did so, literally, for the next 14 years. A chance encounter at a retreat brought the memory rushing back and started her healing journey.
Discussing what it was like to write about such a wrenching story, Marks says, “I almost quit music because of this song! I wanted to do it justice, to give this story nuance. It was tricky to capture that. But it was an honor to be entrusted with Linda’s song. And I thought about other vets and how they could relate to this. It’s Linda’s story but I also wanted it to have a universal message for those who did not go through exactly what she did.”
Moon, the coordinator of the Story To Song program says, “Shawndell shaped this difficult tale of anger and pain into a beautiful song of transformation, strength and inspiration.”
It took almost 20 years after that horrible day in Vietnam, but McClenahan did finally become a nun. She then spent her career as a trauma counselor working with kids and vets. And as Marks sings in the chorus of “Sister Sarge”…
“She’ll be damned if she lets those bastards win
She has found a new mission
Battles aren’t for fighting alone”
The national CD release party for “Women at War” will take place at High Noon Saloon from noon to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 10. Several musicians whose work is on the album will perform.