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Common Ground experience helps veterans heal

Josh Hisle and Walt Michael
April 09, 2013

Iraq war veteran Josh Hisle found peace and acceptance at Common Ground on the Hill on McDaniel’s campus – and now has teamed with founder Walt Michael to open the summer arts, music and cultural experience to more veterans dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other issues.

Hisle and Michael are at first glance an unlikely duo. Hisle has seen two combat tours as a Marine in Iraq, and Michael, artist-in-residence at McDaniel, has spent decades since his 1968 graduation from the college helping people from all races, cultures, and beliefs find common ground through music and the arts.

But they share a love and talent for music – each is a composer, musician and performer. Hisle’s guitar – dubbed by his comrades “the vet” – saw combat action with him. Michael’s guitar was never far from his reach as he worked for civil rights and cultural understanding in Appalachia, the Deep South and now through Common Ground on the Hill.

Perhaps destiny brought the two of them together. After the Marines, Hisle got a call about musicians Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young from Mike Cerre, an ABC/Nightline correspondent who was embedded with the Marines in Iraq and had done a story about Hisle and his combat music. Hisle became fast friends with members of the popular group. He performed with them at Sundance and toured the nation with Stephen Stills.

It was on this journey five years ago that Hisle met Michael, who booked him to teach and perform at Common Ground’s summer traditions weeks.

“I went the first time and was blown away. I could not believe that this place could be real,” says Hisle, who walked away from his job and joined the Marines as the twin towers in New York City were crumbling on 9/11. “At Common Ground people were loving, learning and growing. I myself was so in love, I re-booked as fast as I could.”

When Michael saw the effects on both sides of having a combat veteran participate in Common Ground, he knew he had to find a way to offer the program to more veterans.  Hisle agreed. The Common Ground Veterans Initiative evolved.

“At every step along the way, Common Ground has evolved naturally,” Michael says of the traditional, roots-based music and arts organization he started 19 years ago to explore cultural diversity in search of common ground. “The experience made a difference to Josh – and it had an impact on everyone else as well.”

In 2012, the first group of 10 veterans came to one of two summer traditions weeks on McDaniel’s campus in Westminster, Md. Their experience mirrored Hisle’s – and inspired both Hisle and Michael to raise funds to finance more scholarships for veterans. The Veterans Initiative was recently featured on HuffPost Live during reunion interviews with Cerre, Hisle and other vets on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. 

“We can’t have another generation of wounded warriors out there in the shadows,” Michael says, explaining that his goal is to become a national organization offering the arts to veterans. “We’ve seen that vets can have a re-awakening through the arts – and we are going to keep doing this.”

Hisle, who lives in Ohio with his son, Holland, and wife, Margot, realized the full impact as he watched veterans, some of them his buddies from the Marines, during last year’s program.

“Everyone’s shoulders dropped – finally they are not worried about anything,” says Hisle. “It is an automatic stress reliever – you are surrounded by art, music and overly kind people.”