A conversation with veteran and jazz vocalist Angela Walker

Date Published: May 15, 2024

Angela Walker’s journey from jazz vocalist to U.S. Navy veteran and returning to the music scene is a story of resilience and healing. Throughout her military service, Angela faced numerous health challenges. At one point, she faced the possibility of losing her voice completely. Despite these hardships, Angela found solace through singing, which played a pivotal role in her recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain.

Angela explains that “singing is the medicine the doctors can’t prescribe.” Since tapping into this creative outlet, Angela has competed in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival and won more than ten times. Angela shared with us how she leads a fulfilling life, deeply enriched by her involvement in the musical arts. She is grateful to serve veterans by singing regularly at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospitals, such as the Captain James A. Lovell Federal Health Center in Illinois, and at nonprofit organizations, such as 2023 Creative Forces Community Engagement Grantee Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods.

Following is a conversation that Creative Forces team member Sarah Martin had with Angela about her background and experiences.

Singing is the medicine the doctors can’t prescribe.

Angela Walker

Tell me about your military background and experience.  

Singing and performing were how I made my living before I joined the military. I used to sing as a jazz vocalist in musical theater and nightclubs. I even went on tour in Europe and sang backup for a chick from Chicago. It was how I paid my rent. I joined the Navy to prove I could do more than just sing and dance. I wanted to have a career to fall back on and get access to education benefits. I thought nursing would benefit me because I like people and working in the care field. 

When I joined the Navy, I signed a contract to be a corpsman, an entry-level medical position. But once I finished boot camp and went to my duty station, they changed my job from a corpsman to a helicopter mechanic. It was a big change of plans, and I had no say about it. I didn’t get to pick a specialty in that field because I suffered a back injury, which has caused me continued mobility problems today. 

After that, the Navy officers took me off the airfield, and I became the Squadron physical fitness coordinator. But I struggled with many health challenges, surgeries, and treatments, and eventually, they said, “Hey, you’ve got to go. We can’t see a future with you.” So, I was politely discharged. When I got out, I was lost and tried to figure out what to do next. Because I was very sick, it took a long time for me to recover and get over the stigma of being discharged. 

Your recovery journey through music inspires me. I’d love to know more about the role music, particularly singing, has played in helping you recover from trauma and chronic pain. 

Because of everything that I went through in the military, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 1992 at the Jesse Brown VA Medical Center in Chicago. That’s where I met Jessica Herndon, a music therapist. Jesse was a little old lady who used her manual wheelchair to get around the hospital. She would come to our daily group sessions and play the piano. She played, and I listened. 

Jesse encouraged me to sing along, saying, “Don’t you want to sing? I bet you can sing.  Lemme play a song for you.”  I was reluctant to sing because I was unhappy that my voice was not what it used to be. Eventually, Jesse’s pleas wore me down, and I told her I would like to hear “Summertime.” I sang for her while she played, and she was so happy. She said, “We should enter you into the Veterans Creative Arts Festival.” That day, she took out a cassette tape recorder and recorded me singing.  That was the first time I entered the festival, and I won. I was shocked. I could not believe they chose me. That was 32 years ago.

Tell me more about your experience competing in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. What did it mean for you to win? 

I have won Gold and Silver in multiple musical categories more than ten times in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival. I will never forget my first win and first show. Each win has been an honor.

How it works is that veterans from all over the United States compete by video or stage show in art, music, drama, writing, and media at VA hospitals nationwide. The first-place winners from each hospital are then sent to a central VA spot to compete and ranked first, second, or third nationally. Then, they will handpick first-place winners to participate in a show. I don’t know how they choose who gets to participate, but the ones who get to come are the best of the best. The festival organizers will then pick artists of various art forms and build a show around their first-place acts. 

I didn’t know what to expect the first time I participated in the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival because I had not performed on a stage in many years. When I got there, about 60 or so other artists were invited. We were all given folders with music that we needed to learn, and we had rehearsals all day. I quickly became comrades with the other veterans, and we helped each other get through the show. It reminded me of when I used to work in theater and nightclubs, so I could draw back on my memory of being in that life. But I was afraid because I didn’t know if I belonged there. I was older, anxious, and unsure if I could do it anymore. The music director sensed my nervousness and said, “You got this. Just take your time. Don’t rush.” He talked to me so nice. I’ll never forget that. When I finished performing, he approached me and said, “I think you should continue working on your music. You have a beautiful voice.”

The following year, Jesse asked me to compete again. I sang “Hero, A Wind Beneath My Wings” for that show. I did that song as a goal and was shocked when I competed and won first place. I was like, “What, I won again?”

Since winning the festival over ten times, you have been invited to sing at VA hospitals and other platforms. What have these experiences taught you as a performing artist? 

I’ve learned to be humble and grateful. It is always an honor to be invited to sing for others. I’ve also learned how to sing in severe pain. Learning how to sing with chronic pain is a challenge because you never know what kind of pain you’re going to be in or the strength of the pain. And often, the pain can be so fierce that it can knock you down to your knees. 

Another thing I’ve learned is not to cheat the audience out of anything. You give them what they came for. Give them your all. 

One day, I was trying to leave the house to go out and compete, but I was in a lot of pain. And my son said, “If you don’t feel good, why are you going?” And I said, “Well, I’m not going to feel good if I stay home, so I might as well go.” I competed that day and got first place; even though I was doubled over and tears came down my face, I was determined. So, I am learning to continue to be determined about what I’m doing. 

You once said singing is the medicine doctors can’t prescribe. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that? 

When I sing for the veterans weekly or daily, I would sing but be in pain. But there’s something about the music; I don’t know if the music is healing me or if it’s healing the patients. 

Suppose you think about an analgesic balm. When you lay it on your skin, it might be cooling at first, and then it helps to relax whatever’s hurting you. That’s how I think about the voice. The voice goes out like a healing balm. I look at the audience as I sing and see the smiles on their faces. I can tell the music is helping them. Maybe it’s helping them remember a good time or making them feel better. And I think because I’m doing it, some of that medicine is spilling onto me, too. There have been times when I was singing that my body pain was so bad I could barely see straight. But when it’s time for me to sing, I close my eyes, and the pain disappears for those few seconds, minutes, or moments when I am singing. 

That’s what I mean when I say that music is healing. Singing touches the heart and promotes healing. How long can I stay in that zone? I don’t know. But that’s why I sing every day. And other veterans find it healing, too. They will often come and sit next to me when I’m done. They’ll start talking to me about their life and what’s happening. And some will even share confessions. They will say, “I know I’m getting ready to die, and I want to tell somebody before I go.” When I used to sing on Sundays at the VA hospital for church services, many veterans would come in, and they would say, “I’m so glad you’re here because this is the only place in this hospital where I can feel better.” I always hear those types of comments when I do religious music. It’s affirming but scary because it makes me responsible. I have learned to be careful of what comes out of my mouth and what I let in. 

For a veteran like me, the arts allow me to express myself through music in ways that words may not suffice. The arts also make us want to continue living and serving in our communities. One of the best things that has happened to me through the arts is joining a community and serving my fellow veterans.

Angela Walker

As a veteran and artist, what’s the value of giving military communities access to the arts?

Priceless. It’s priceless because it’s like a lifeline for many of us. The arts are one way of getting through to people that medicine, hospitals, social workers, and even family members may be unable to do. For a veteran like me, the arts allow me to express myself through music in ways that words may not suffice. The arts also make us want to continue living and serving in our communities. One of the best things that has happened to me through the arts is joining a community and serving my fellow veterans. With everything I have been through, I would not be where I am today without the arts. So, I may not be in the service, but I can still serve our veterans and active-duty members.

What advice would you give to other artists who want to sing to veterans or engage them through music programming? 

I would say, study your craft. Get certified in your craft if you can. That’s what I will be working on now – getting my certification for sound therapy. Then, get to know people in the veteran community. Try to get involved with the Veterans Health Network and work with a music therapist at the VA or a community organization connected to the VA. You can help others find solace and healing in music and the arts by partnering with your local VA Hospitals and music programs. The best way to help veterans is to meet us where we are.

Watch Angela perform

(Audio Described version): Angela Walker performs at the 2024 Paralyzed Veterans of America Igniting Change Gala.


Our national anthem this evening will be sung by PVA member and United States Navy veteran Angela Walker.


[voice singing] O, say, can you see,

by the dawn's early light,

what's so proudly we hailed

at the twilight's last gleaming,

whose broad stripes and bright stars

through the perilous fight,

and the ramparts, we watched

were so gallantly streaming,

and the rocket's red glare,
the bombs bursting in air

gave proof through the night

that our flag was still there.

Oh, say does that star-spangled
banner yet wave,

O'er the land of the free

and the home of the brave.


Retire the colors.

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