Interview: Patrick Hawco, Veteran and Founder of Electric Forces

Electric Forest was an exceptional experience for HeadCount this year and I had the privilege of being the Team Leader for the event. Over the course of the four-day festival our team registered nearly 500 people to vote, had countless inspirational interactions, and marked the nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage with 40,000 of our closest friends.

One of the most inspiring interactions we had was with a collective that they stumbled upon while canvassing the forest. The group, Electric Forces, has been a part of the Electric Forest festival for the past two years as an integrated therapy program for veterans involved in the electronic music scene.

Patrick Hawco is a founder and organizer of the Electric Forces team. He first attended Electric Forest in 2012 at the recommendation from some friends. Of that first year, he says

“I was kind of in a really bad spot as far as my thought process and my transition. I was a pretty angry guy. [Electric Forest] was something that a lot of my friends were doing for the years that I was in the military and they thought that it would help me. And it did.”

In 2013, Hawco was interviewed by Thump (VICE’s electronic music channel) and by 2014 Electric Forces was born. Within the first year the program more than tripled and shows no signs of slowing down. I recently spoke to Hawco about his experience with Electric Forces, his goals for the program’s future growth, and his passionate beliefs about the future of non-traditional veteran therapy.

Electric Forces began 2014 and then returned again in 2015? Can you compare the number of veterans that came to the Forest with you in each of those years?

Well in 2014 there were only about 6 of us. We didn’t really have any budget and we didn’t have any idea necessarily where it was going to go. And then, I don’t want to quote a bad number, but I think there were over 50 people this year, which is amazing. And a lot of the growth was just because we expanded the scope so it wasn’t just the story telling project. We had veterans doing set up and build crew and we had veteran-led workshops, so it really kind of started to inject and build a bridge between [veterans and festival goers]. It was kind of nice to see that there are more veterans than I thought in the music festival scene. It was a vast number more this year than last year and honestly it’s funny how something that started as such a small idea gets out of hand and away from the start so quickly. It’s almost out of my control at this point.

EForces Build Crew

Did you guys all camp together? And if so, what was that experience like, camping with 50 like-minded people in such a different environment?

That was one of the most transitionally effective things that I have ever done and I didn’t really know that it was going to happen. I knew that we were going to have a campsite together but my mind was basically on the project because that’s where I had to produce all my content. But away from the cameras and away from the festival grounds in that campsite I talked about things with guys that I hadn’t talked about in five years, ten years. These men and women, we all kind of—I don’t know if ‘opened up’ is the right word—but there was a shared catharsis that definitely took hold. It was pretty special and actually kind of emotionally draining to take on all of that emotion at the same time. It felt sort of like an impromptu therapy group but it was naturally done, there was no force to it. It was naturally induced therapy for everybody and I think the shared experience factor and knowing that someone else has shared your experience was vastly more helpful than talking to someone who has a degree. I almost can’t describe how emotionally effective it was for me, and just from the reaction from the other vets, I know that it was incredibly effective for them. It kind of took that community vibe that everyone feels in their campsite at those music festivals and heightened it for us. It was beautiful.

In the video from 2014 you talked about the catharsis so I would assume that that definitely has heightened a lot since more people have been brought into the community of Electric Forces.

Yeah definitely. There is a phrase that I forgot to use at Electric Forest this year and it’s “Post Traumatic Growth” and it’s about taking the idea of this experience you have in combat or whatever kind of traumatic experience you’ve had and to decide that it’s not something that hinders you. Although it makes you different, it can be something that brings you together and I think for all of us to see how it was helping all of us, in turn, become better, and to see basically that we weren’t alone. I think that’s the main part of Electric Forces, thinking, “Oh my god these people are sharing my feelings.” You go from feeling completely isolated to not isolated at all just through conversation. It doesn’t even have to be about anything specific. It’s just the connection to somebody else.

Can you share one or two ‘highlight interactions’ from Electric Forest this year?

There’s a lot. I mean meeting so many different people is part of why we all go but I’ve got two, actually. I have one with my friend Brad, another vet I met there, who was in the build crew. He told me he was walking around the Forest with his girlfriend and she showed him a luminaria candle. It was for his lieutenant who had died in Iraq I believe. He came right up to me in the booth and he was like “she just showed me this candle” and he was crying and telling me how this was the most beautiful experience of his life. After that he went right into the booth and basically spilled out a bunch of things that he had been holding inside for probably ten years and then came out of the booth and said thank you, I feel better then I have since deployment, basically. That was epitome of what I am trying to do so that was very special to me.

EForces Memorial

The other special thing was meeting this guy names Brent who is one of the original builders of all of the art in the Electric Forest. I believe he worked with a guy called “Dolla Bill” and he basically gave me a guided tour through the art in the forest. This was at night and he was showing me exactly the way that the artists wanted you to enter the space and experience the space and he introduced me to some of the artists and I got a lot of the reasons for their pieces. It was almost like taking an art history class within the space of Electric Forest, which was amazing because no one gets that kind of experience. You explore it for yourself. And he proceeded to tell me how [the forest is] a big family and that he really wanted to help me expand my program, which was awesome. I felt even more connected to the actual production value of the experience and I really felt that helping vibe that everyone including me feels and I kind of got why people want to produce these festivals. I guess as a festival-goer I always thought wow this is much more fun doing everything and experiencing it. The most natural unbelievable high I ever had was that night experiencing this idea of helping others. I’d say those two experiences were my top or at least the ones that highlighted mostly what the experience is for me.

Electric Forces seems to be a place where veterans can come and open up to each other. Is there a main point that you want to stress to non-veterans in situations like these?

I guess the main point would be that we don’t ever want to be treated any differently. Obviously there is a difference. There is a separation but I think that there is with everybody. I think understanding that everyone has experience and just because the experience is different doesn’t mean we’re all not the same or can’t connect. I think I said this a couple years ago but we’re all people too. It’s not like PTSD makes you into something else. The big part for me would be to stress that—and this is coming from my perspective I don’t want to speak for all veterans—but the biggest thing that’s helped me honestly is getting to know other people and getting to know their experiences. I want to build bridges of experience and story telling is a great way to do that but also conversations in general are a good way to do that—that kind of connect everyone and let everyone know that we’re here and that they’re not alone. I think the biggest transitional aspect for all of the veterans is eliminating that feeling of isolation and eliminating that feeling that you need to somehow be who you were [before deployment]–because you’re not going to be–and using community acceptance to reconcile the fact that you’re not going to be [who] you were and that you’re going to have to adapt and live with [who] you are now and I think that everybody has to do that in life. It’s just the idea that just because we have different experiences doesn’t mean that we’re different. And I think that the community building idea can apply to everyone and it doesn’t have to be veteran specific. I think that would be my message about why I’m doing the program.

So in that light, you’ve been working with StoryCorp to preserve and gather interviews from the forest. Can you talk about the process of this collaboration and what it means to you?

Well the fact that they want anything to do with my project is incredible. Their scope is based on finding real, primary sources of documentation so it’s an amazing thing. You have these probably never before heard experiences from these people and these very sort of lonely, especially for this time in history, experiences that are now not only being heard but also being documented. So for me it gives our voice a resonance over time and that is the basis of learning for human beings: passing on knowledge and passing on experience so I mean I have no words to describe how incredible that feels.

Your plan is pitch and expand the program. Can you talk about any goals you have at this point in respect to the future of Electric Forces?

Yeah. I noticed that it’s definitely something that’s way too big for me to do on my own. I’m speaking to other festivals who are interested in running the same sort of veteran integration programs so I’m definitely going to need other vets to help me out, and then I think just the transitional healing aspect is such a good mold within music festivals because you already have all of these people doing guided meditation and yoga and workshops and music therapy and the more veteran involvement that I can get in those things, the better. But in terms of the project: I want to create that and more of that in more spaces. So it’s just through the involvement of more veterans and more of the festival community.

EForces Yoga

I actually have this idea right now that I’m working on with everyone else that was in the crew this year and it’s called FIT: Festival Integration Therapy. I realized that was one of the biggest part of my transition was just being integrated into that scene. So I kind of want to maybe even start a not for profit where I can get actual donors to help put on a real integrated therapy program for veterans at music festivals and this is also something that we can do for other people. But getting people to give money to anything that seems out of the standard generic scope of veteran therapy is difficult. And that’s the other big piece of what I want to do. I realized that there are so many men and women out there who are experiencing all of these positive effects of what would be called non-traditional therapeutic means and they’re not really being supported or really even getting the acknowledgement of it. I mean I can’t even get acupuncture from the VA.

What I want to do is create a network that expands beyond music festivals where everything from music therapy to yoga, whatever it is, that these big guys like the Wounded Warrior Foundation and the USO, all of these big organizations won’t even touch. I want to create a network that is going to say ‘hey whatever is helping you, we want to support you.’ I think there is a lot of support for that if we get the message right and that’s why the content that comes out after this festival and the veteran involvement is really important for people to see that it’s actually a legitimate program.

I definitely want to keep doing what I’m doing at Electric Forest and bring the storytelling and the veteran workshops to other music festivals. But I also want to expand the entire idea of how we go about helping transitioning veterans. There are a whole lot of my brothers and sisters out there who need help and have no idea and don’t even go to music festivals. I want to go beyond and connect everyone to a network that will support them.

Project9Line is a non-profit you’ve been involved with that has a similar goal at hand. Can you talk about your involvement with them?

Electric Forest was actually the first involvement that I had with [Project9Line]. I only found them because I googled “music veteran therapy” and they were the only ones who really had the not for profit idea. There were a lot of individual and local programs where you could go play guitar or something like that with a therapist or little clinics. Project9Line were the only ones that I found who were actually creating a network. [At Electric Forest this year] they gave us veteran sponsored workshops so we had a space and time set up at the Grand Marquee and they had guys come in and actually tell some stories from their past, do some poetry. It was basically kind of like an open mike that was all just enabling vets to perform. They would be an incredible asset to continue working with and I’ve been in contact with them and they’re definitely a major part of the network that I want to try and build. Their idea of enabling veterans to do whatever they need to do and support them in whatever non-traditional way that they need, that is my goal too.

Anything else you’d like to leave me with?

I would just want to express once again that this is not about ‘I’m a veteran look at me.’ I have the complete opposite idea: ‘we’re all people, look at us’ you know? I’m much more going for the idea of unity than the idea of creating a special interest group and I think that a lot of veterans share that idea. There’s nothing that makes you feel more isolated than something like a ‘here’s a T-shirt and a Bud Light, thank you for your service’ kind of thing. We’re not janitors, we’re human beings.

Tell your friends!