Chattanooga-Created Song 'Change' Explains New Military Tradition

May 26, 2017

The song “Change” explains why people around the nation are leaving coins at the graves of soldiers, sailors, and other military service members. 

"A penny, love and respect," the song says. "A nickel, boot camp together. A dime, you served together. A quarter, you were there when they gave their life for their country." Tracy Smith is one of the songwriters, and he first noticed such coins after his son’s funeral. Randall Smith had served in the Navy, mortally wounded during a 2015 domestic terrorist attack. "Actually," Smith says, "it would have been the day after Randall's funeral, we stopped and there was already change on the headstone. We had to Google it to see what that meant because, I, you know, we had no idea. And I just think it's an it's an awesome tradition." It’s unclear who assigned these meanings to the coins, or when the tradition started, but it's happening around the nation. Some Web sites say it began during the Vietnam War. Others contend it’s even more recent. Email forwards and Facebook posts are helping circulate the idea today. And now, the song “Change.”  (Listen below) 

The nonprofit organization Operation Song brought Smith together with Don Goodman and Steve Dean, a pair of Nashville professionals who’ve written thousands of songs. (Smith, in contrast, says his main musical experience was "changing the station while listening to the radio.") Operation Song hosts weekly workshops where songwriters sit at a table with people like Smith—people who have a story to tell. Specifically, the stories of veterans, active-duty military, or family members.

"There's times it gets emotional," Smith says, "because we're reliving things that are born out of the worst times in our life." Smith first got involved when he wanted to write a song about his son Randall. U.S. Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Randall Smith had been stationed at a Navy Operational Support Center in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Randall was one of five service members murdered by a homegrown terrorist who attacked the center on July 16, 2015. According to news reports, Randall risked his life to warn others before he was mortally wounded. Tracy Smith wrote a song titled "Father and Hero" about Randall. "It's kind of addicting," Tracy Smith says about Operation Song sessions. So now he has two songs to his credit: "Father and Hero" and "Change." At Operation Song’s Chattanooga writing workshops, Smith sits with veterans from World War II, Iraq and other conflicts, and the therapeutic part is more than simply the process of writing about their experiences. It’s the camaraderie. Friendships that continue after the lyrics are typed, and the guitars are put back in their cases. "I was having a bad day, and Don, you know, we talked till after midnight on a Friday night. Just because he wanted to make sure that I was okay. You don't get that a lot of other places. It's a testimony, not only to them as individuals, but what Operation Song stands for."