Music is helping retired Sgt. Leo Dunson and a number of other vets get their emotions and memories out in the open where they can confront them.
Dunson, who describes himself as a PTSD and suicide survivor, writes and performs a version of rap music that he calls “soldier music” because it’s hard hitting. “I needed something that was intense,” he says. You can listen to some of his songs on his Web site: http://sgtdunson.com/
I caught up with him at a conference at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where he’s currently a political science major. But his six years in the U.S. Army define his life and his music. At the core of his military career was a deployment to Iraq. He spent a year in Mosul, followed by six months in Baghdad, an extension of his deployment that was announced as his unit, the 172nd Stryker Brigade, was leaving Iraq.
Dunson credits his squad leader with sparking his musical career by urging him one day to write about his infantry experience. That night, he wrote three songs. “I wrote a song called ‘My First Kill’ which was about the first time I had to use my weapon for combat,” Dunson told the Rebel Yell, UNLV’s student newspaper. Another song, “If I Don’t Make It Home,” was a letter to his family telling them what he wanted them to do in the event of his death. “It was really deep. I cried while I was making it, and I cried while I was recording it, too.”
But war changed his plans. Dunson’s marriage fell apart during his deployment, and he came home to a divorce, back-to-back incarcerations, homelessness and the emotional wounds that we’ve come to know as post-traumatic stress disorder.
“One of the worst things I think they do in the Army is they tell you to forget everything that’s happened to us,” Dunson says. “They want you to erase the past six years – however long you were there – to forget it and just move on. For me, I came up with the whole idea of how about not forgetting it.”
Dunson’s music hit home with the UNLV audience, composed largely of National Guard vets. The gritty lyrics combined with the music for a strong emotional bond, the kind that is so unique to music.
“Many of the musical parts of the brain, if I could put it this way, are close to the memory parts and close to the emotional parts. And so music tends to embed itself in memory and to evoke emotions with an immediacy beyond, I think, of any other stimulus with the possible exceptions of smell,” writes neurologist Oliver Sacks. “But in particular when people really have chills and thrills and sort of their hair stands on end with music enraptured, then you can find the particular systems of the brain rewards systems are activated, the same systems which are activated when one falls in love, or is overwhelmed with beauty generally. But that being said, that leaves the problem ‘So what’s beauty?’ It’s just not sort of pleasure, it’s the whole nature of aesthetic and beauty and the sublime, which is so overwhelming in music or can be.”
That’s because music occupies more space in the brain than language does, Sacks explains.
Furthermore, music can stimulate thinking, according to Stefan Koelsch, a neurologist from Berlin’s Free University and the author of “The Brain and Music.” “Listening to music has the capacity to up- as well as down-regulate neuronal activity in these limbic and paralimbic structures” of the brain, Koelsch writes.
But a vet has to be ready to accept the therapy.
“When we came back from war, we were so emotionally numb that we couldn’t feel love,” says Mike Orban, a Vietnam vet and vets’ advocate from Milwaukee. “We couldn’t even see beauty in the world around us. Our eyes were open, but we couldn’t see the beauty of a group of goldfinches clustering around a bird feeder.”
Unfortunately, that’s still where David Carlson is.
Emotionally, that is. Physically, he’s serving a three-year sentence at a state prison in Chippewa Falls, Wis., on burglary, theft and bail jumping charges.
“When he came back from Iraq, nothing seemed to work for him,” notes his mother, Heidi Carlson, who is also a nationally recognized counselor working with troubled vets. “Now he’s in prison with no medications and little therapy, but he’s finding his voice with music.”
David’s childhood was troubled, largely as a result of his father, an abusive Vietnam vet, says Carlson.
Her son did two tours of Iraq with the Wisconsin National Guard. As a sniper, he had more than 100 missions on his first deployment in 2004. He served as a scout during his second deployment in 2008. “David spent most of his time outside the wire, but IEDs (improvised explosive devices) seem to have been a common thread,” his mother told me.
“During David’s first tour of duty, he still believed in the mission,” says Orban. “But he lost it on the second tour, and there was no way to justify all his friends being blown up. Ad when he lost his belief in the mission, he also lost his belief in himself as a soldier and in what he was doing.”
When Carlson came home, he was drinking heavily and huffing “canned air,” aerosol cans of keyboard cleaner. Huffing canned air called Dust Off was a big problem for the military in Iraq.
“David had flashbacks so severe that I had to get him into VA trauma centers several times,” says his mother. “I remember one night he was drinking heavily and playing Russian roulette with a pearl-handled .357 revolver. When I got to his apartment, I saw the pistol on the coffee table. I took it, and he was crying, saying he wished he’d died in Iraq.”
Most of Carlson’s songs are explicitly sexist, racist and profane, but one song did explore suicide:
Save me from dis misery.
All dis hate I feel
Inside it’s killing me.
I let it go
But dem cowards still testin’ me.
I’m ready for eternity.
Inside I’m frostbit.
Dem late desert nights
Somewhere I lost it,
Try to find myself,
Found I don‘t give a shit
And dey don’t give no shit bout me.
My life’s forfeit.”
That black anger is the first stage of therapy, says Orban. It’s the cry of a vet who’s still stuck back in the killing zones, but who’s trying to fight his way back out.
“David is still in the black hell of war,” says Orban. “He has to get that out of his system, and he has to get those issues resolved. As he does, he will eventually begin to get a little softer, and there may be a smile in there sometime. But you can’t go from hate, guilt and anger to love in a single heartbeat.”