After serving almost 12 years of active duty in the U.S. Army, Eric Haynes wants to use his story and musical talents to help others heal.
Like many others, Haynes said, he came home changed by his service — in his case, a 2005-2006 tour in Iraq.
"It's not like you try to be," he said. "You do what you can to survive. ... When you get back to the states, it doesn't mean you're back mentally — and that's what happened to me."
Haynes, of Auburn, always found a sense of belonging in music, but he didn't perform for anyone until 2000. That year, he sang the very first song he ever wrote to his father before he passed away. He then sang the song at the funeral. While Haynes has been writing songs and singing for some time now, he's working on learning guitar and piano at the age of 48.
At a benefit concert March 2 at The Center for Wellness in Auburn, Haynes will perform some of his original songs, as well as country covers and patriotic songs. The event is called "Coming Home," and Haynes will debut his song "Treading Water," which he wrote to help him mentally come back home from Iraq.
The song was inspired by a conversation Haynes had with his oldest daughter in the fall of 2017 that "slapped me in the face," he said.
"She said, 'Dad, you just need to come home from Iraq.'" He wrote "Treading Water" soon after the conversation.
Haynes, who spent nine months working as a chaplain in Pittsburgh's Veterans Affairs hospital system, said it's common for veterans to struggle with mentally coming back from their deployments. In counselling World War II veterans and prisoners of war, people who had returned to America 30 or 40 years ago, he said many "were still over there."
"If nothing else ever came about with my music," Haynes said, "I just want to be able to get ('Treading Water') out there and have people hear it. I think there's so many people that can benefit from the story behind it. ... There's a lot of people who need it."
At The Center for Wellness, Haynes receives acupuncture and massage therapy services through the Veterans Community Care Program. He said the staff at the Auburn facility is like family to him, and was "head over heels" when he presented what he called a "wild idea" to host a concert there and donate the money to support other veterans.
The concert is free, but Haynes hopes to raise money to benefit Clear Path for Veterans, an organization based in upstate New York that Haynes said originated with connecting veterans with service dogs for free. Haynes will be accompanied on stage by his own service dog, Ciara, who will don a cowgirl boot on each paw. Hayes said he received Ciara about a year ago, and it's been the best year of his life.
"She's changed my life. First she saved it, and now she's totally transformed it," he said. "I can't even begin to tell you about the love that she shows."
A short time after separating from his wife last year, Haynes was invited by bluegrass legend Louisa Branscomb to a singer/songwriter retreat at her Woodsong Farm Retreat in Georgia.
While there, he met a woman — whom he now calls his guardian angel — who connected him to Ciara. A former bomb sniffer for the Army, Ciara, 10, was saved from being euthanized and then trained as a service dog. Her owner told Haynes that she felt a calling to give Ciara to a veteran who could benefit from a service dog. Coincidentally, Haynes had just begun applying for service dog programs. Haynes met Ciara that same day, and said they immediately bonded, with both recognizing that they were a safe place for each other.
"I wrote a song the day I met her, it's called 'Tears of Joy,'" Haynes said. If he can finish the guitar part to go with the lyrics, he added, he may debut the song at his March concert.
Haynes said he and Ciara both have post-traumatic stress disorder, and their signs and symptoms are almost identical.
"With Ciara's help, it's my mission to help others" veteran or not, Haynes said. "Probably about two years ago, I would not have stepped out of the house. ... She allows me to interact with people on a level I never would've done before."
Together, Haynes and Ciara have been accomplishing their dreams — including auditioning for "America's Got Talent" season 14 last fall. The season will likely air in April or May.
"It was just one of those things where everyone else said, 'You can't do this,' but we're showing people that age doesn't define you, your disabilities won't define you — you only define yourself," he said.
Haynes is passionate about helping others heal and, as someone who's struggled with suicide, been divorced and struggles with PTSD, he hopes that his story and his music will offer people from many different walks of life something to relate to.
"That's the beautiful part about music: There's so many ways to interpret it," Haynes said.
"It's now my mission to share my story, to share my life with people," he said. "I'm not going to live in the past, but I can take the past and I can make it a good thing for other people. ... They can see that they can live and they can actually dream."