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Band of Brothers

Stuart Carlson of Jeremy Ranch joined the Marine Corps in 1961 because he wanted to serve with the best.

More than 50 years later, he is still part of the team.

Carlson sings with other retired servicemen in an all-male chorus made up of people who receive care at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Salt Lake City. They aren’t all Marines, but they can carry a tune together. The group, called the Salty Dogs, won first place in the vocal group comedy category in the 2008 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival.

Carlson was one of about 130 U.S. military veterans from across the nation invited to attend the festival that showcases veterans’ art, music, drama, dance and creative writing.

Singing isn’t Carlson’s only talent, though. He received first prize in creative writing for a short story about his experience on a civilian search team after a 5-year-old Salt Lake City girl, Destiny Anne Norton, was reported missing in the summer of 2006. "Local morning news coverage had depicted a desperate, distraught mother asking for help in finding her daughter," he writers. "Destiny had been missing since the evening before when, upon venturing into the family’s backyard, she’d simply disappeared."

A team leader, Carlson trolled through dumpsters and gullies to no avail. The search ended in tragedy when the girl’s body was found that weekend. Still, Carlson said the search effort was admirable. "I feel so lucky to have teamed up with selfless men and women who freely stepped forward when the call went out for help. These people are truly God’s gift to mankind. I will always consider them to be Destiny’s Angels."

The week of workshops and rehearsals that began Oct. 21 in Riverside, Calif., gave Carlson the chance to chew the fat with his contemporaries. "It’s something I enjoy," he said Monday. "Most veterans feel they have a real common bond with each other. There are no two marines that don’t know each other."

Carlson remembers plenty of people from nine years as a helicopter pilot. He trained in Florida and missed serving in the Vietnam War only because of a freak car accident. A jeep hit Carlson on the tarmac as he walked to his chopper one day. He spent the next 10 months recovering in a naval hospital and received a medical discharge. "All my buddies went to Vietnam," he said. "That accident is probably why I’m alive today."

Carlson went on to work for the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon and eventually landed a BLM job in Washington, D.C. After 40 years, he decided to retire to Park City. He enjoys fly fishing and is a member of the High Country Fly Fishermen.

"Utah’s right in the heart of the Intermountain West and geologically, it’s one of the most majestic places," Carlson said.

Today, when the former Washington insider is not recreating in the wild, he spends his time singing or serving the community. He volunteers at the VA hospital once a week. Most of the patients there are elderly. They suffer from heart trouble, diabetes and other chronic ailments. Other veterans are fresh off tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Some of them are pretty banged up," he said, "and there’s a lot of stress on these guys."

Carlson knows from experience that salving veterans’ wounds is no easy task. "I just play it low key and introduce myself," he said. "I tell them that I’m just a volunteer and I have no skills or authority. That usually gets a laugh, and once you break the ice almost everyone appreciates having someone to talk to."

The creative arts festival allows veterans service men and women to rehabilitate their minds and bodies. "A lot of times we treat veterans with medications and talk therapy," Elizabeth Mackey, festival director, said. "But the arts are another avenue they can explore that is non-threatening."

Mackey said veterans’ hospitals have started to see an influx of GIs from Iraq and Afghanistan. Each is offered wood, leather and metal kits. They can paint by numbers or knit. "Even if veterans haven’t dabbled too much in art, they find they’re good at something."

Besides a new pastime, crafts help veterans develop fin motor skills that strengthen coordination and relieve stress.

They can also sit back and listen to Carlson’s Salty Dogs.

He sings bass. The group has some real talent, Carlson said, and some of the members sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The group was one of a handful selected for the arts festival from a pool of about 3,000 applicants.

Contrary to their name, the Salty dogs are affable, Carlson said, and game for anything. They perform parts of the opera "Carmen," "Man of La Mancha," and the crowd pleaser "Chatanooga Chu Chu" at this year’s festival. They had been rehearsing since January. "There’s so much talent in the group," he said.

Carlson grew up singing in choirs in church and school. The fact that he gets to perform with his band of brothers is a boon at a tough time for the military. "It’s a nasty world out there," he said.


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