|Troops find voice to sing about war, combat zone
|Marine Sgt. Sugarray Henry reached for a cigarette as his platoon returned to its base following a nighttime sweep for land mines and explosives in Hit, Iraq. Gunfire, sudden and furious and aimed square at his convoy, disturbed the still darkness.
It pierced his military truck, shot out a couple of his tires, punctured holes in the side mirror. A driver up ahead was shot and killed, his vehicle spilling into a muddy ditch. Henry, positioned in the second truck from the back, grabbed his M-16 rifle and let loose.
“It was just gunfire coming from everywhere, and all we could do was just shoot — shoot back,” Henry recalled.
That harrowing night in early 2005 would come to mind months later when, from the safety of a military barracks in Hawaii, Henry put his thoughts on paper. He wrote about looking for insurgents on a “dark, late night,” about the bullets that whizzed by his head, about an urgent voice on the radio relaying news that a comrade was killed, shot in the head.
He reflected, too, how he almost cried when he saw a dead Marine from his squad.
A fellow member of the platoon wrote a verse about a friendly fire incident the two had survived. They mixed in background sound effects of explosions and machine-gun fire and recorded a hip-hop song they called “Combat Zone.”
“We in a combat zone/The only thing we can think about is making it home/They keep on extending us/We done been here too long/Wake up one day and then the next day you gone.”
The song is included on the first CD of a new record label reserved for past and present members of the military.
Sean Gilfillan and Sidney DeMello, Rhode Island natives behind To The Fallen Records, based in Newport, were eager to give musically inclined troops a vehicle for expression — and expose civilians back home to the realities of military life.
The 14 hip-hop tracks on the CD mix sobering reflections on war with thumping rap beats and catchy choruses. Rock and country songs will step forward on future releases.
“We want it to appeal to everyone, whatever your beliefs are,” DeMello said.
For Henry, 23, writing “Combat Zone” with Tendaji Akil, a fellow member of Dirty Boi Vets, was a “stress reliever,” an opportunity to recount in unfiltered fashion the violence of war.
Henry enlisted in the military as an escape from the streets of Mobile, Ala., where he had lived with his mother and older brother. His mother gave him two options after high school: college or the military. It was an easy choice, really, since money was tight and he wasn’t much of a student.
Even then, he wasn’t sure he was headed for war. He said his platoon was shipped out without being told of its destination. But his superiors told the troops, unflinchingly, what to expect in the combat zone.
“‘Everybody’s not going to make it back,”’ Henry recalled being told. “‘Some people gonna die, some people gonna get hurt.’ They told us all that in the beginning.”
For the longtime rap fan, formulating his thoughts into hip-hop lyrics was a natural outlet.
“Basically, I was just trying to tell a story that happened,” said Henry, a member of the 81 mm mortar platoon, Weapons Company, 1st Batallion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, based in Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii. “I was trying to paint a picture of what it was like.”
That’s one of the label’s primary goals.
“Our message is, if you want to know about it listen to the CD, listen to the different opinions of the guys and girls that are actually involved directly there,” Gilfillan said. “And gauge what they have to say and then form your own opinions.”
The venture keeps Gilfillan, 28, rooted in the military, which has been part of his family for generations. It also serves as catharsis: The former Army captain spent 15 months in Iraq, and though he still talks with pride about his service, he returned home with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder after having lost seven close Army buddies.
The names of his slain friends are tattooed across his back, inscribed with the words “To The Fallen” and a picture of a helmet that hangs atop a rifle standing upright inside combat boots — a symbol for a fallen soldier.
Gilfillan and DeMello, 31, solicit submissions from current and former military members, regardless of their political views or branch of service. They work with a professional sound engineer to ferret out the best songs.
“I love it, I appreciate the fact that my voice is heard,” said Michael Thomas, a senior airman in the Air Force who contributed a track called “Soldier’s Prayer” that he recorded at a base in Germany. “And there’s a lot of people that can relate to what I’m saying because what I’m saying is not just making (up) a story and it’s not me just talking about holding a gun and shooting people.
“Everything that I say really has substance to it,” he continued. “It’s not just dumbed down.”
The subjects vary.
One performer laments the liberal use of the word “soldier” and criticizes civilian rappers who perform in fatigues. An Air Force veteran performing under the name FOX-1 welcomes listeners to the “warriors’ home, the war zone” where “heroes” are fighting and dying “because we’re trying to keep the planes from flying into the buildings/killing civilians/but you can’t always tell the innocent folk from the villains.”
Several performers convey an understanding that danger, perhaps death, is imminent.
An Army sergeant who calls himself Soldier Hard raps about preparing for a mission at 1 a.m. and listening to Bob Marley’s reggae to take away stress. He laces up his boots, puts on his helmet and kisses his family’s picture. Then he asks God for the courage to lead his men — and to take care of his daughter and son if he dies.
“Will I die, will I get hurt/ that’s what’s always on my mind/Will he die, or will he die, it’s just a matter of time.”
Henry is stationed today at a camp in Indian Head, Md., training to respond to a chemical or biological threat.
He’d go back to Iraq because that’s the job he signed up for when he joined the Marines.
“When we go over there, all we do is just make sure we look after each other,” he said. “We don’t really know what we’re fighting for.”
But having already lived to write about the combat zone, he’s not eager to experience it again.