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Electric Forces: Music-Loving War Veterans Bring Storytelling to Festivals

The program’s second year set up shop in the woods of Electric Forest, further exploring the power of human connection in festival culture.
July 31, 2015, 3:05pm

Electric Forces was launched in 2014 at Electric Forest in Rothbury, Michigan, a result of a chance encounter with two veterans from the war in Afghanistan, Pat and Tim, as a way to profile the catharsis many experience when attending music festivals. Their endeavors were profiled in the THUMP documentary Electric Forces: America's Vets and The Healing Power of Festival Culture.

In the doc, we went inside The Human Avatar Project, EF's first major undertaking, a futuristic audio/visual recording booth made to capture stories shared by festivalgoers and veterans alike. The question they asked was simple: how have music festivals changed your lives for the better?

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During the 2015 edition of Electric Forest, which took place June 24-28 in Rothbury Michigan, the Electric Forces program set up shop for the second year running, further cataloguing and exploring the power of stories and the human experience.

"Our scope has expanded a lot this year," says Patrick Hawco, who helped run and organize Electric Forces. "We've brought in a massive new group of veterans supporting the fact that Electric Forces is supporting our veterans. We have medical help, parking help—we're just trying to give these guys some tickets, paying jobs, give them some love."

Electric Forces' 2015 efforts upped the ante. Many of the vets involved got the chance to work with the build-crew for the festival, helping to create some of the immersive features seen throughout the grounds. The Electric Forces program also receive a dedicated zone in the forest for a series mindfulness workshops, freewriting sessions, and meditation clinics.

Other features included a luminaria program in which participants dedicated glowing lanterns to lost loved ones, as well as an array of unplanned, spontaneous experiences. Some even chose to translate the stories they heard from others into a series of beautiful poems.

Throughout the weekend, Hawco helped moderate a multitude of story-sharing sessions, some which took place in the group's forest location, others that were more intimate, taking place in a makeshift "studio" that the crew built from scratch in a stretch of the festival's backstage area. It's here that veterans got the chance to share their tales on camera, many choosing to talk about extremely personal, sometimes life changing moments from their time serving, or just being devoted fans of live music.

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"This is the first time I've gotten a massive camp full of only veterans, and it's been so emotionally touching for me," says Hawco. "To be able to share these feeling that I've had for so long and hear other reciprocate—I think we've all felt so much anger and guilt for so long. Especially survivor's guilt and anger about things we weren't able to control - this [festival community] has really done a lot to help us feel comfortable with being peaceful, happy people."

Pat (right) and Tim (left) at Electric Forest 2013.

As profiled in our documentary, Hawco, like many recovering veterans, lived a life of anger and depression following the injuries he experienced serving abroad. It's in becoming a part of festival culture, and sharing his experiences that he found ways to cope, and learned to share. "That's the biggest thing for me, to heal these guys who are hurting and show them that there is a different way [to cope] than suicide or synthetic pills," he says.

After the successes of 2014, Electric Forces have achieved new levels of exposure, and will be working with StoryCorps, a nonprofit that created the largest single collection of human voices ever gathered, to find a home for their collection of interviews. "The idea of getting a primary source from these people who have actually had the experience is amazing," he tells THUMP. "It's been very emotionally overwhelming, I've been crying for these past few days because I'm sharing a music festival with all these people." The goal is to have this collection of audio preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, along with other select StoryCorps files.

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By the time we caught up with Hawco, he'd already recorded around 20-30 interviews, half of which had been with vets. During our time on the ground, we got the chance to sit-in on one of the interviews sessions, a story exchange between two young vets, James and Dylan. James, who's from Baltimore, Maryland, described his path into the armed forces in 2008, a decision he credited to "knowing he would screw up in life," if he didn't enlist.

James being interviewed by Dylan.

The intimate talk, in which James was asked questions by his friend and co-marine Dylan, included questions about James' musical taste, introduction to electronic music, festivals, as well as the tragic death of one of their fellow marines. James further discusses his introduction to the music scene back in 2011, where some friends brought him to see hardstyle DJ, Showtek. Years later, he cherishes the open-minded acceptance he experiences in a place like Electric Forest to his more positive mindset overall. "I've made made life-long friends [here at Electric Forest] that I'll know forever," he says.

While the organizers at Electric Forest have retained tremendous support for the program, others haven't been so willing. Throughout our talk, Hawco describes the reluctance certain veteran organizations, like Wounded Warriors, have had to get on board with the program. Hawco attributes their apprehension to the often controversial status of music festivals overall, events whose headlines often negatively center around drug use.

Read THUMP's original interview with Pat and Tim

Still, Hawco hopes that the collected audio recordings, and work with NPR, may act as a catalyst to other festivals around the world to get on board. "[We plan to use these interviews] to pitch [Electric Forces] to big organizations and maybe get some military organizations to support us ,because this is a real transitional opportunity for veterans," he says. "We also want to pitch [the program] to other music festivals because this is such a good opportunity for all types of people to come together to share and solve problems. We can start bringing the lessons that we learn at music festivals and bring them to the communities that we are in today. We can address these issues on a more global level."

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