From the heart: An Asheville nurse shares her combat experience through song

MUSIC THERAPY: U.S. Air Force veteran Michelle Dolan says her job as a primary care nurse manager at Charles George V.A. Medical Center contributed to her interest in sharing her combat experiences through music. Photo by Vance Janes

U.S. Air Force veteran and nurse Michelle Dolan doesn’t have a background in music. She doesn’t even consider herself to be a particularly avid music enthusiast. But that didn’t stop her from expressing one of her most poignant military combat memories in song.

This spring, the Tennessee-based, veteran-focused nonprofit Freedom Sings USA selected Dolan, a primary care nurse manager at Charles George V.A. Medical Center in East Asheville, as one of 10 nurses from across the U.S. — all armed forces veterans — to participate in a three-day music therapy retreat in Murfreesboro, Tenn. Participants were paired with professional songwriters to create original songs capturing some of their most unforgettable military experiences.

For Dolan, a Mills River resident who served 11 ½ years in the Air Force — including two tours as a combat medic in an intensive care ward at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan — the inspiration came from memories of a severely injured little girl and the indelible impression she made on her military caregivers. Working with Nashville songwriter Wil Nance, who has penned hits for musicians such as Brad Paisley and George Strait, Dolan wrote the song “Zahara,” which debuted on May 15 performed by singer Lauren Mascitti on the album From the Battlefield to the Bedside.

Dolan says that, as a veteran, she relates to each of the other nine songs on the album. “You may not have been in the same country as them, you may not have been doing the same job, but some of the things they’ve seen, some of their stories, you know exactly what they’re talking about; you can feel their pain, feel what they did and saw,” she explains. “Because in your own experience, you’ve seen the same thing somewhere else.”

Dolan spoke recently with Xpress about her songwriting adventure and the inspiration behind “Zahara.”

This interview has been condensed for length and edited for clarity.

Xpress: What inspired you to apply for the Freedom Sings USA program?

Dolan: They were looking for someone who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan, who was in the medical field during that time, and I met all the criteria. They had a brief description about what it was, working with the songwriter to come up with the song. And for some reason, instantly, it made me want to reminisce, you know? And I think working at the VA has brought that out of me — I just started at the VA this past August. Being around the veterans and carrying that pride with me to work about being a veteran, I’m able to somehow relate to my patients a little bit easier, I think. And when I saw that advertisement, I was like, “Oh, it would be nice to talk about some things that I went through and kind of reminisce about my deployments.”

Can you talk a bit about the three-day songwriting retreat in Murfreesboro?

The setting was in a church. They had all this camera equipment, a backdrop and mic and lighting and stuff set up. And [they had us answer] questions to see what we think this is really going to do for us or what we think it’s about. … And then we met each other and all the songwriters who were volunteering for this process, and they paired us up with the songwriters — world-class songwriters who have award-winning songs in Nashville or elsewhere.

[On the second day] we went to separate rooms and sat down with the songwriters. My person — his name was Wil Nance — he said, “Just tell me about yourself. Tell me about your experience in the military.” And so I just kind of started spouting off all these different things, because I didn’t know what he wanted to hear. But I told him, there’s one thing that I always go back to; one thing I always get choked up with when I talk to someone else about this experience: It was this little girl named Zahara.

So we sat down and wrote different verses of the song and the chorus and pieced it all together within a day, just within hours. It was a fast process. … Then, at the end of the day, we had a concert just for us. We sat on the stage with our songwriter, and they played their guitar and sang the song for us and for everybody. … The next day, we had an exit interview with the camera crew: How was the experience? What did you think about it? What did you get out of it? What are you going to bring back?

Could you summarize Zahara’s story? 

Zahara was a little girl — a local [Afghan] national. To my knowledge, she was 4 years old. The story I was told was that she was held up as a shield when the Taliban attacked her village, and something hit her head and must have scalped her; it didn’t seem to have caused any brain damage. They ended up having to take skin grafts from her leg and put on her head. So she was [in the hospital] for several months. It was all Air Force people in this section of the hospital, and we were basically raising her. Either her dad or her uncle was also there with her.

She was learning some English words, and we were learning some Afghani words, and toward the end of her stay, we were potty training her. … When she got the care she needed from us, they were going to discharge her, because they did have local health care for them outside of Bagram Airfield. … And either her dad or her uncle, whoever was with her, was basically begging us not to let them go, because he was in fear that once they went home, the Taliban were going to come back and kill them. So it was like a knife to the heart, when you’ve taken care of this little girl for so long, day in and day out, and then you can’t do anything to keep her from going home.

You never heard anything else about her after that?

No. I actually reached out to a couple of people I was deployed with, and one of them was like, “Did you find out what happened to her?” And I said, “No, I didn’t.” And she said, “No, me either.” A lot of times, people do keep in contact and follow people that they meet when they’re deployed, and other times it’s just kind of a memory. An unfortunate memory.

What did you think of the recorded version of “Zahara” when you heard it for the first time?

I thought it was just beautiful. It reminded me of being in church. I am not a churchgoer, but I did go to church when I was a kid with my grandparents, and it just kind of gave me that feeling. It’s just a comforting, beautiful, heartwarming song. I mean, it was sad, but to me, it was heartwarming. I don’t know that it was closure but, you know, you have all these thoughts and feelings about your past, and it was just a way of wrapping it all up into one story. And that was really nice.

Is there anything else you want to share about the album or the Freedom Sings USA experience?

I would just say that the people that volunteer for this program are amazing. They want to provide basically a listening ear for anybody who wants to join the program. You don’t have to be musically inclined to do this.

Like with anything that could be therapeutic, it may open some wounds and bring experiences back to you that you maybe didn’t think would bother you. But it is a good experience overall. … You don’t have to see a counselor or go to therapy; this is a way of letting it out. Some people journal, some people draw, but if you like music, especially, this is a great outlet.

To listen to “Zahara” and for more on the album From the Battlefield to the Bedside and the nonprofit Freedom Sings USA, visit


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One thought on “From the heart: An Asheville nurse shares her combat experience through song

  1. Christopher Pratt

    Thank you Michelle, for your service, sharing your story and providing your knowledge, experience and talents, with our veterans here in Asheville. My Dad came home from the US Army after WWII a DAV, and I know well the difficulties I saw hm face daily which I am certain would be eased by your work, care.
    God bless you, keep well, strong keep safe. Cheers, Chris

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