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1:38 pm
Mon April 16, 2012

For One Soldier, Rap Is A Powerful Postwar Weapon

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 8:53 am

When Jeff Barillaro came home from fighting the war in Iraq, he felt lost, like thousands of veterans do. He didn't have a mission anymore.

But now, through music, he's found one: Under the stage name Soldier Hard, Barillaro raps — about how war has changed troops and their families. Other vets and their family members are now turning to his music, because they say he's speaking to them.

On a recent morning, the National Guard Armory in Evansville, Ind., looks and sounds like any military base in the country.

A batch of new recruits goes through its weekend drills. Most of them are still in high school, and they're getting ready to go to basic training when they graduate.

But that night, the training center has been transformed into a concert hall. A stage has been set up in the gym; the lights are turned down low. The Howitzer cannon parked along the wall is barely noticeable. A show, celebrating the new recruits, is under way.

The crowd parts as Barillaro — bald, covered with tattoos, with huge shoulders — rides up to the stage on a Harley-Davidson.

"Before I get started, let me introduce myself. I go by the name of Soldier Hard. I did 10 years in the United States Army," he says, before launching into his first song, "Boots Laced Up."

Boots laced up, I'm standing on the front lines.
Battle-tested and ready, I go like green lights.
I shine, I show no fear.
Rule No. 1, never show no fear.

A young woman in the audience, Katrina Graves, says she drove an hour and a half to get here. She's making a three-hour round trip just to hear Soldier Hard.

Graves, who teaches special education, stumbled upon Soldier Hard on YouTube when her boyfriend was fighting in Iraq. She kept listening to his song "Military Wife."

"That's what I was going through — deployments, homecomings, you know, separation. It showed me other people were going through this, other women were going through this," Graves says. "It just really touched my heart."

A Military Life

Barillaro grew up in Northern California. The 35-year-old says he knew he'd be a soldier when he was 12 — practically all the men in his family were in the military.

"It was the best thing," Barillaro says. "When I saw the men in uniform, I just wanted to put on the boots."

And he did, right after high school. But after four years, Barillaro says he got fed up with his assignment and went AWOL. The Army arrested him, and he served two months in Army jail. Then they kicked him out, and he returned to civilian life.

But then, Sept. 11 happened.

"It was about how I gotta get back in," Barillaro recalls. "I gotta leave everything back home, because my buddies are out there; send me out there."

Barillaro appealed to the Army, which allowed him to re-enlist, and soon, he was leading convoys in Iraq. Out on missions, Barillaro says he experienced ambushes and gun battles, and he saw friends getting blown up.

Back at the base, the other troops would try to unwind by lifting weights or playing computer games. Barillaro would go straight to his room.

"I brought my studio condenser, microphone, I had Pro Tools software. You know, just little basic headphones, a little mic stand," he says. "I put a little mattress on the wall, you know, to soundproof the room a little, to get a clearer recording."

And he'd rap about what happened in the war that day.

From a song called "War Face On":

We rolling out the front gates, weapons status on red,
I don't really care for 'em, they just wanna see me dead
Yeah, so I put my war face on,
Yeah, yeah, I get my war cry on.
In firefights, yeah it happens really fast.
You see all the tracers flying everywhere and hear the blast.

Barillaro says that recording the songs was therapy: "I'd get so lost into the music, that I actually forgot where I was."

After War, New Battle Begins

Barillaro left the Army again in 2010 — this time, as a sergeant with medals and an honorable discharge. But Soldier Hard didn't have a mission. He was like thousands of other vets — his life started falling apart.

"You know I always feel that everyone's out to get me," Barillaro says. "I don't really want to talk to my family members. They will never understand me, but I can make music about it."

There are other troops who sing about their battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some do it with hip-hop, some with country music. But Barillaro focuses on his battles since he's come home. He can hardly sleep. His memory is shot: He'll talk with someone and then forget what they said. He binge-drinks and pops Percocets; he yells at family members for no apparent reason. His songs come almost straight from his medical records.

In "Combat Veteran," Barillaro raps:

I am a combat veteran, they sent me far away.
They trained me to kill, to fight in foreign places.
I served hard, didn't complain yeah, I did my job.
Now I'm back home, life now is hella hard.
I'm thinking everyone one around me is out to get me.
Hear backfire from a car, I get jumpy.
Easily startled, I stay on my guard.
Damn, I need some help, might even pray to the Lord.
This post-traumatic stress disorder gets the best of me.
I just want to be like before and how I used to be.
I'm shaking all the time, these tremors, yeah, they come and go.
And there are times I don't even want to live no more.

His medical records show that Barillaro was diagnosed with severe PTSD. He had been married 10 years, had kids. He and his wife broke up.

"I was so numb, I had a lot of hate in me. I wouldn't talk to [his wife]. And if she would say something, I would tell her to leave me alone," Barillaro says. "She's like, I wanna understand and try to be there for you. I was like, I don't want you to be here for me."

Providing Solace For Others

After Barillaro wraps up his set at the Indiana National Guard, he sits at a table with piles of Soldier Hard T-shirts and CDs. He sells his albums on his own. He has a website, where people can place online orders. On another site for veterans, his songs about military wives have gotten almost half a million hits. And in Evansville, fans are lined up for his autograph.

A thin young man named Keith Briggs stands at the edge of the crowd. He is wearing a baseball cap, and he looks almost like he is trying to disappear. He says Soldier Hard's music saved his life after he came back from his second tour in Iraq.

"One night I was home, sitting down, I had a loaded gun next to me. And I was ready to end it all," Briggs says. "For some reason I was on YouTube, and I found Soldier Hard's music on YouTube, and it kind of just put me at ease."

"I wasn't by myself," Briggs says. "I felt relaxed knowing that this was a normal reaction to what I had been through. And he is having hardships, too, but he expresses it through his music, and I can relate to that."

The morning after the concert, Soldier Hard has turned back into Jeff Barillaro. He is packing his suitcase and heading home to California. Over the past year, he has performed for vets in Seattle and near Miami, and at a base in Germany. He says he'll fly wherever anyone wants to hear him.

But Barillaro says his next big mission is to go back to psychotherapy. He had a handful of sessions last year, but he still wakes up from the same nightmare almost every night.

"My buddies are fighting, we're getting enemy contact, but I'm hiding," he says. "I'm scared, I don't want to show my body, you know. I throw my weapon down, I don't want to fight. And I'm crying."

Soldier Hard's new album, scheduled for release this summer, is called Therapy Session.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

When Jeff Barillaro came home from fighting the War in Iraq, he felt the way many returning vets do: in a word, lost, because he didn't have a mission anymore. But now, he's found one through music. Barillaro raps. His stage name is Soldier Hard, and he raps about how the wars have changed troops and their families.

As NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports, now other vets and family members are turning to Barillaro's music because they say it speaks to them.

DANIEL ZWERDLING, BYLINE: I stopped by the National Guard Armory recently in Evansville, Indiana. It's morning, and it sounds like any military base in the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF A DRILL)

ZWERDLING: Most of them are still in high school, and they're getting ready to go to basic training when they graduate.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Unintelligible). There's (unintelligible), let's go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: One.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Two.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Three.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Four.

ZWERDLING: But when I come back to the armory that night, they've turned the training center into a concert hall. They've set up a stage in the gym and turned the lights down low. You almost don't notice the Howitzer cannon parked along the wall. They're celebrating the new recruits with a show.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: You want to gather toward the stage so we can get the show started.

ZWERDLING: And the crowd parts because Jeff Barillaro rides up to the stage on a Harley-Davidson.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

ZWERDLING: Barillaro has huge shoulders. He's bald, covered with tattoos.

SOLDIER HARD: Before I get started, let me introduce myself. I go by the name of Soldier Hard. I did 10 years in the United States Army.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

HARD: All right. This first song that I'm going to do right now is called "Boots Laced Up," and I tell our story. (Unintelligible).

(Rapping) Boots laced up. I'm standing on the front lines. Battle-tested and ready, I go like green lights...

ZWERDLING: One young woman in the audience says she drove an hour and a half to get here. She's making a three-hour round trip just to hear Soldier Hard.

KATRINA GRAVES: My name is Katrina Graves, and I've been a fan for a while.

ZWERDLING: Graves is wearing tight jeans, crazy high heels. She says she teaches special ed. Her boyfriend went to Iraq. And while he was off fighting, she stumbled on Soldier Hard's music on YouTube. She kept listening to his rap called "Military Wife."

GRAVES: That was what I was going through - deployments, homecomings, you know, separation. It showed me other people were going through this, other women were going through this. It just really touched my heart.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARD: (Rapping) Kiss my family goodbye. I kiss to see you later (unintelligible). Put my life on freeze, it's called me often. My whole squad roll and (unintelligible).

ZWERDLING: Soldier Hard is 35. He grew up near San Francisco. He says he knew he'd be a soldier when he was 12, practically all the men in his family were in the military.

HARD: It was just - it was the best thing. When I saw the men in uniform, I just wanted to put on the boots.

ZWERDLING: And he did, right after high school. Barillaro left the Army four years later. He went back to civilian life. But then came 9/11.

HARD: It was about, I got to get back in. I got to leave everything back home because my buddies are out there right now. Send me out there.

ZWERDLING: And he re-enlisted. And soon, Barillaro was leading convoys in Iraq. He said they'd go out on missions, there'd be ambushes, gun battles. He saw friends getting blown up. Then they'd come back to the base, and the other troops would try to unwind by lifting weights or playing computer games. Barillaro would go straight to his room.

HARD: I brought my studio condenser, microphone. I had a Pro Tools software, you know, just little basic headphones, a little mic stand. And I put a little mattress on the wall, you know, to soundproof the room a little, to get a clear recording.

ZWERDLING: And he'd rap about what happened in the war that day.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAR FACE ON")

HARD: (Rapping) We rolling out the front gates, weapons status on red, I don't really care for 'em, they just want to see me dead. Yeah, so I put my war face on. Yeah, yeah, I get my war cry on. In firefights...

It was therapy. I'd get so lost into the music that I actually forgot where I was. And then when I'd finished the song, oh, my gosh. I'm in Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAR FACE ON")

HARD: (Rapping) (Unintelligible) focused you know that training kicks in. You'd feel every single ounce of adrenalin.

ZWERDLING: Barillaro left the Army in 2010. He had a handful of medals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAR FACE ON")

HARD: (Rapping) So I put my war face on, yeah, yeah.

ZWERDLING: But there was no war face on anymore. But Soldier Hard didn't have a mission. He was like thousands of other vets, his life started falling apart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMBAT VETERAN")

HARD: (Rapping) I'm a combat veteran, they sent me far away. They trained me to kill, to fight in foreign places. I served hard, didn't complain, yeah, I did my job. Now I'm back home, life now is hella hard. I'm thinking...

You know, I always feel that everyone's out to get me. I don't really want to talk to my family members. They will never understand me, but I can make music about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMBAT VETERAN")

HARD: (Rapping) Hear backfire from a car, I get jumpy. Easily startled, I stay on my guard. Damn, I need some help, might even pray to the Lord...

ZWERDLING: There are other troops who sing about their battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some do it with hip-hop, some with country music. But Barillaro focuses on his battles since he's come home. He can hardly sleep. His memory is shot. He'll talk with someone and then forget what they said. He does binge drinking. He pops Percocets. He yells at family members for no apparent reason. Barillaro showed me his VA medical records. His songs come almost straight from the files.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COMBAT VETERAN")

HARD: (Rapping) A part of me is still fighting on the battlefield. The VA is so quick to feed us some pills. I really wish that I was me again...

ZWERDLING: The VA's record showed they diagnosed Barillaro with severe PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. He had been married 10 years. He had kids. He and his wife broke up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

HARD: (Rapping) She said she's packing up and leaving. But still, I don't respond 'cause I don't feel a thing, like Novocain on. I used to be emotional but now I'm emotionless. I used to be in love with her but now I don't give a sshh...

I was so numb. I had a lot of hate in me. I wouldn't talk to her. I didn't say a word, you know? And if she would say something, I would just tell her to leave me alone. She's like, I'm trying - I want to understand and try and be there for you. I was like, I don't want you to be here for me.

ZWERDLING: We're back at the concert at the Indiana National Guard. After Barillaro wraps up his set, he sits at a table piled with Soldier Hard T-shirts and CDs. He sells his albums on his own. He's got a website, people order online. Another site for veterans shows that his songs about military wives have gotten almost half a million hits. And here in Evansville, Indiana, fans are lined up for his autograph.

STAGGS: S-T-A-G-G, Stagg.

HARD: Got it.

ZWERDLING: There's a thin young man standing at the edge of the crowd. His name is Keith Briggs. He's wearing a baseball cap. And he looks almost like he's trying to disappear. He says Soldier Hard's music saved his life after he came back from his second tour in Iraq.

KEITH BRIGGS: One night, I was at home. I had a loaded gun next to me. I was ready to end it all. And for some reason, I was on YouTube, and I found Soldier Hard's music on YouTube. And it kind of just put me at ease.

ZWERDLING: In what way?

BRIGGS: I wasn't by myself, you know? And this is a normal reaction to what I've been through. And he is having hardships, too, but he expressed it through his music. And I can relate to that.

ZWERDLING: The morning after the concert, Soldier Hard has turned back into Jeff Barillaro. He's packing a suitcase and heading home to California. He's performed over the past year for vets in Seattle and near Miami. He's performed at a base in Germany. He says he'll fly wherever anyone wants to hear him.

But Soldier Hard says his next big mission is to go back to psychotherapy at the VA. He had a handful of sessions last year, then stopped, but he still wakes up from the same nightmare almost every night.

HARD: It's the same dream all the time. My buddies are fighting, we're getting enemy contact, but I'm hiding. I'm scared. I don't want to show my body, you know? I threw my weapon down. I don't want to fight. And I'm crying.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "THERAPY SESSION")

HARD: (Rapping) Yeah, I'm like the bomb about to explode, suicidal thoughts, yeah, like to overdose. Yeah. Still in recovery from all the pain. Still in recovery waiting for the...

ZWERDLING: A song from Soldier Hard's upcoming album, it's called "Therapy Session." Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF A SONG, "THERAPY SESSION")

HARD: (Rapping) They got me popping pills. They want to talk it out. They label me unstable when I speak out. I try to hide what you can't really see. This is my life. I'm still in recovery. They got me popping pills. They want to talk it out. They label me unstable when I speak it out. I try...

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.