I recently became aware of Operation Song, www.operationsong.org. Their mission is to empower veterans and their family members to tell their stories through the process of songwriting. They need no musical or writing skills, only a willingness to share their stories and, with the help of professional songwriters, transform them into song. I was particularly moved to tears by the song “Machine Gunner” written by Marine Veteran Mick McElhenny, Operation Song writer Jason Sever, and Belmont University student Mykal Duncan.
“Chain of bullets, belt fed.”
Music has always been a strong influence in my life. I do not sing in a way that anyone other than Jesus Christ and possibly Kim would want to listen to, but I do enjoy a well-crafted song. I love songs that move me spiritually, emotionally, and may even cause me to sway and tap a foot, which is as close to dancing as I may generally get. Listening to music often moves me through many emotions.
“It’s hard to find cover in a poppy field, but I sure as hell ain’t no runner – machine gunner.”
The song “Machine Gunner” almost slipped past me as I listened to a pod cast from the Veteran’s Administration (VA). It has become the closing music for the podcast. One morning I had time to devote exclusively to listening to the podcast, I discovered that listening to the lyrics of “Machine Gunner” emotionally captured me. I was so ensnared by the lyrics and feel of the song that I was sobbing and could barely get my mind off of the Soldiers I know and consider my own. I thought also of the military members who find themselves in the predicament of this being their current daily life. I have not had this exact experience, yet I trained for it, I lived for it, and I (truly and fortunately) never thoroughly experienced it.
“The pretty ain’t a shield.”
I’m not a Marine; I’m a very proud and accomplished Soldier. My primary Military Occupational Specialty (MOS), my daily Army job, was Land Combat Support Specialist, 27B. I was an electronics technician responsible for testing and repairing the guidance and targeting systems of anti-tank weapons. My secondary MOS was Infantryman, 11B. It was my choice to have 11B as my secondary MOS. However, I never was assigned to an infantry squad. I admire the infantry and recognize the skill and dedication of the members of the combat arms.
“Lug a thousand rounds – and I ain’t bringing back one.”
I’m a veteran of the Cold War and Desert Shield Desert Storm. I spent a “lifetime” preparing for and prosecuting a war that stayed just outside of all-out terror. And then an extra 96 hours in combat. The stress was intense, the wounds are not visible, and the trauma is real. Each day is a gift that I had no expectation would arrive. I had prepared my mind for the reality of all-out combat. I resolved and oriented my thinking to permit me to point a weapon at someone and pull the trigger with the intent to kill them. Yet, unlike Mick McElhenny, I did not engage with the enemy. I did not participate in a way that had the consequence of seeing my enemy face to face.
There has been a cultural acknowledgement of the end of the cold war, I personally watched the wall come down. I’ve walked on the sidewalks of streets in small former East German towns. I know we won. And still the cold war rages on. I walked on top of the destroyed tanks of Saddam’s vaunted Republican Guards Tawakalna and Medina Divisions. I saw hundreds of defeated men with their hands up in surrender. I participated in a couple of parades at the end of Desert Storm and have marched in numerous Veteran’s Day parades. Why does this song intensify the flames of memories of war that continue to live in my mind?
After listening to the song, I wrote these lines and sent them to my son.
I’m not sure.
I’m not a Marine.
I’m not a veteran of this war.
I’m not an Infantryman.
Why am I sobbing?
Why am I so connected to this song?
Why do I feel like I failed?
What am I mourning?
I’m not sure.
The soldiers of today have been at war in Southwest Asia for 20 years. This conflict has been a heavy ethical, spiritual, physical, and emotional burden for the men and women of today’s military. They are burdened with deployments to a hostile foreign land, and when not deployed, they are preparing for the next deployment. They leave their families behind to go face constant daily danger. Then via a relatively short flight, they come home to Starbucks and street lights. Where is the emotional switch? Why do the lyrics of this song affect me so?
“Raining down lead, punching that clock. Get ‘em boys, I’m laying down cover – machine gunner.”
It has been more than 25 years since I stopped the daily donning of my warrior uniform. My life of preparation for combat halted some time ago. Yet I find that I deeply empathize with and identify with the pain and anguish of men and women like Mick McElhenny.
For an additional perspective:
My youngest son, Kenny, is a soldier currently on active duty in Hawaii. He has been deployed multiple times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. He is a trained Military Intelligence analyst and has also been assigned to Recruiting Duty. He served as an advisor and evaluator at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin and is currently performing duties as a Training, Plans, and Operations staff Non-Commissioned Officer with the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade, 25th Infantry Division “Tropic Lightning.” You can read more from Kenny at his blog: Kalex Content and Photography
This is his response to “Machine Gunner.”
I was introduced to something called “Operation Song” by my father whom recently had an interaction with one of their creative pieces. My dad listened to, then recommended I listen to, a song called “Machine Gunner” created by Mick McElhenney with the help of songwriters and musicians. The program appears to serve as a therapeutic vehicle of sorts to assist veterans in dealing with the often overwhelming and confusing emotions related to PTSD.
I initially wanted to believe and write that I did not share a connection with this song. I am not necessarily a fan of the genre and the majority of Soldiers today find it a little cringey when people make art in this vein. However, as I sat down to listen and write my perspective I realized that I do share a connection here, and it kept punching me right in the gut as I tried to write this. Mick and I experienced deployment very differently. I am an Intelligence professional by trade so my job was, inherently, not as dangerous. As Mick was patrolling and getting in firefights, I was analyzing satellite imagery from the safe confines of a secured Forward Operating Base. Regardless of formal training and job responsibilities, deployments are never safe for anyone.
I spent a combined total of 13 months in Iraq (and then an additional seven months operating in the skies above Iraq and Afghanistan), lulled into a false sense of security regarding my job and the negligible threat level which came attached. Four months into my first trip to Iraq, my life was altered forever as I pulled a weapon on a group of innocent Iraqi Nationals, ready to pull the trigger because my ire was up. I had just been bathed in a shockwave and was startled, confused, and scared shitless. A vehicle had entered the perimeter of our base and detonated a very large bomb which had been built into its engine block. A fellow paratrooper was in the cab (a signal Soldier), wrestling with the driver and attempting to thwart the attack. Edge was unable to stop the bomb from exploding and we all had a formation for him at the end of the day. Roll Call and Taps sounds a lot different when the person you’re sounding them for was just eating breakfast in the same dining facility as you that morning.
I didn’t share the same experiences as Mick and I think that is important to point out. Our experiences were different, but our traumas are similar. There exists a stigma in which a person says to themselves: “sure, I deployed, and maybe I saw some things which will live with me forever, but I wasn’t in direct combat and therefore do not deserve to feel this way”. The truth is, I belong to an entire generation of Soldiers who were at war for the better part of two decades and, though not all of us got in firefights, we still saw and experienced events which forever altered our outlooks on life. I still can’t say it’s over to be honest, and I think that bothers a lot of us.
The connection I share here is of the collective shared experience. The connection we share is speaking our experiences through the written word / song and helping ourselves overcome the mental blocks we put in place to cope with unspeakable events. It is very difficult for most veterans to speak about our experiences as we are either taught to internalize or ignore emotions and carry on.