From 2004 to 2005, Dustin Row served in the Iraq War with the 724th Transportation Unit of Bartonville, Illinois. The unit’s mission was to escort fuel convoys to Baghdad and western Iraq. On April 9, 2004, the unit drove a support convoy directly into an ongoing offensive between the U.S. Army and Shiite militiamen. Outnumbered by hundreds, Row’s truck was one out of six to make it through the kill zone. Two of his fellow soldiers were killed in action, and one was captured.
When he returned to his hometown of Columbia, Illinois (just 20 minutes from downtown St. Louis), he had a good job and a supportive family. He knew these were luxuries that many combat veterans aren’t afforded and felt compelled to do something about it. In 2013, he started a not-for-profit organization called Songs4Soldiers to help returning combat veterans and their families. As a fundraiser for the organization, Row assembled his band, Where’s Charlie?, and other local groups to perform a benefit concert in a grocery store parking lot in Columbia.
What started small has grown tremendously in the past four years. In 2013, the organization was able to put close to $7,000 toward veterans assistance. In 2016 alone, that number was up to more than $155,000.
“We have a huge concert every year, and 100 percent of the proceeds help combat veterans all across the Midwest throughout the entire year,” Row says. “Up to this point, we’ve spent more than $325,000 and helped more than 245 combat veterans and their families.”
When it comes to helping veterans, Songs4Soldiers has a unique way of making sure the money goes to the right places.
“We’ve never given a dollar of cash to any veteran, ever,” Row says. “Whatever their greatest need might be, we do it directly. That way we know for a fact it goes to the right place.”
Songs4Soldiers only helps veterans who are “doing their best to put their best foot forward,” Row says. All too often, help for veterans is nothing more than a Band-Aid of sorts, he explains. To combat that, Songs4Soldiers aids in funding mortgages, security deposits, dental work, home repairs, support dogs and more.
“If you can name it, we’ve done it,” Row says.
The yearly concert is the organization’s biggest fundraiser, with last September’s raising more than $91,000. It’s caught the attention of veterans and media outlets across the Midwest and continues to grow with each passing year.
With growth comes challenge, though. As a town of 10,000, some question if Columbia has the space to support an event this big. Row thinks so – he says Songs4Soldiers’ annual concert will always be held in Columbia. However, out of necessity, it’s grown to a two-night event this year with a national performer headlining the event.
On Sept. 22, Columbia’s Bolm-Schuhkraft City Park will host singer/songwriter Bret Michaels, along with local acts Jeremiah Johnson Band and Dazed n Confused STL. On the concert’s second day, Sept. 23, the lineup will feature ClusterPluck, The Dave Glover Band, PettyCash Junction, Where’s Charlie?, Dazed n Confused STL, Joe Dirt and the Dirty Boys, and SuperJam. The second day will also feature a kid zone with bounce houses, although both days are family-friendly, Row says.
“The cool thing about doing a two-night show for the first time is that it doesn’t come from a place of ego – we literally need to have a second show to support the number of veterans that we have coming in from all over the Midwest,” he says. “We have combat vets coming from St. Louis, Chicago, Tennessee, Michigan … the whole Midwest.”
When asked what he’s looking forward to the most about this year’s event, Row says the answer is twofold. The first part is a surprise, though, and will take place during the Bret Michaels show on the concert’s first night. The second part is something that happens every year: his chance to look out at the crowd from the side of the stage and just take it all in.
“Looking at my team and my kids and seeing how far this has come is my favorite moment every year,” he says. “It’s not just a normal concert. It’s allowing us to help hundreds of people. It’s like Christmas morning to me.”
Row has high hopes for the future of Songs4Soldiers. He envisions continued growth as word spreads but wants the organization to remain “very small at heart.”
“I picture a national charity coming out of an awesome, supportive community,” he says. “The original mission of Songs4Soldiers was to be a small show and help four combat veterans a year, so I’d say we’re onto something here.”
Songs4Soldiers Fifth Annual Benefit Concert
What: A two-day concert series to benefit combat veterans across the Midwest and their families
When: Friday, Sept. 22, and Saturday, Sept. 23
Where: Bolm-Schuhkraft City Park, Columbia, Illinois
Details: Friday admission, $30 in advance, $35 at the door; Saturday admission, $10 in advance, $15 at the door; veterans and kids ages 12 and under, free