Raymond ‘Rocky’ Loera looks warily out his front windshield, the truck’s headlights piercing the oppressive darkness ahead of us and illuminating the freshly paved road, the asphalt almost as pitch black as the surrounding night. His eyes scan left and right, unconsciously taking mental notes of his surroundings as they fly by at 55 miles an hour; every ripple of water in the canals beside the road, every row of tilled yet fallow field that stretches off into eternity, every lonely tree standing vigil at the occasional crossroads he acknowledges with a rolling stop that could barely be considered a stop. It’s 1 in the morning and there’s a faint smell of earth and ozone rolling in through the windows, lowered to make up for the barely functional air conditioning and try to make the stifling, musky heat of the cluttered, abused truck’s cab slightly more bearable to sit in. I sit in the passenger seat, counting the few dots of light off in the distance that signal the presence of electricity, of homes, of towns, of people, and remind us we’re on the outskirts of El Centro, California and not in the endless desert of Iraq. I chance a look at Rocky and he meets my gaze, a smile spreading across his face. He reaches towards the radio’s volume knob and cranks it till the pulse of the next song’s intro, ‘Crazy’ by Gnarls Barkley, hits our eardrums like concussive blasts. Then, he starts talking about his war.
For many veterans of the Global War on Terror, the music of their youth is also the music of their war, tied to a general memory that is both painfully specific and wistfully vague, full of violent emotion and clear recall, of murky spots of black devoid of information and details. The main hook of a generic pop song, the soulful strum of a guitar, a verse from a heavy metal breakdown, the barely coherent scream of a screamo track, the soundtrack of America’s warfighters is eclectic and independent of the artist’s original intent. The sentiment of the original piece is lost to the meaning forged in the hearts, minds and on the flesh of the Americans that suffered the tolls of war, both at home and abroad. A song’s attachment to a memory isn’t unique to military personnel, but whereas the average American at home in the States is saturated every day with incidental, almost compulsory exposure to the day’s trends and tastes, servicemembers overseas exist in a constant vacuum of culture that, when filled by a given slice of home, becomes all the more striking, singular and irrevocably personal.
In Mark Slutsky’s curation project, ‘Sad YouTube’, comments abound from Vietnam Veterans leaving poetic tributes to a moment lost in time, their stolen youth, the pulse of their era as captured by a given, innocuous song heard once yet never forgotten. One such story, in the comment section for Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale”, reads, “I first heard this on the way back from a combat assult [sic] into a forgotten landing zone. (…) No matter where I am now, when I hear this song. I’m sitting against the bulkhead in the center of a UH-1D, listening to the white of the transmission and the whap, whap of the rotor blades as they carry us away from a place where a very dedicated group of young men tried to kill us.” In most people’s minds, when thinking of the Vietnam war, particularly those who either didn’t serve in Vietnam or those who weren’t born yet, there is a specific sound attributed to the war. Jefferson Airplane, Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Lennon, Billy Joel, all are in the average American’s mind as being the definitive soundtrack of not only the war but the social upheaval at home.
In the documentary, Restrepo, a young American soldier in Afghanistan is strumming on a beat-up acoustic guitar that once belonged to a friend killed in combat, remembering the deceased’s personality quirks, accented manner of speaking, and love of flamenco music. Then, he starts strumming a melancholy tune, the opening of the song ‘Stay together for the kids’ by Blink 182, as clips of the outpost in Afghanistan are intercut with ‘then and now’ shots of various soldiers while in country and at present. In the same documentary, a group of soldiers engage in humorous, borderline homoerotic horseplay to the beat of Gunter’s ‘Touch me’, a strange display of uninhibited youthful playfulness and the indecipherable intricacy of masculinity among close-knit groups of men. These examples show the width and breadth of individual experience, but with each we also see the reborn meaning and significance of songs which, for all intents and purposes, have nothing to do with war save for their happening to occupy the same space in time as the listener.
“I remember when I lost my mind, there was something so pleasant about that place…” The lyrics cut through the low whistle of the air rushing by the slightly cracked windows, Rocky’s eyes lose focus and glow with the sickly emerald luminescence of the radio’s readout. “While I was there, in Iraq, it was the world as I knew it, the real world, the only world that made sense even though my being there didn’t. I hated everything about that country, the people, the violence, the heat, but once I left it I couldn’t NOT think about it and have this kind of homesickness that I both did and didn’t understand.” I try to act as co-pilot as he drives the truck haphazardly down lonely country roads, listening to the disembodied voice of my cousin as his body operates the vehicle but his mind goes back to the war.
“And when you’re out there, without care, yeah, I was out of touch, but it wasn’t because I didn’t know enough, I just knew too much, does that make me crazy? Possibly…” We come to a crossroads where, by odds that are only good in places like this, another car rolls to a stop and forces us to slam into a sudden halt, a cloud of dust traveling across the road as the other vehicle drives on into even deeper country. “Over there, in the fighting, you know what to do, you know your job, you know you could die, you know all these things, but when you get back, nobody knows what you know, only those who learned what you learned know what you know, and you can’t not know that anymore.” We idle at the stop sign, the dull orange glow of the lone lamp post illuminating the four-way stop and lighting Rocky’s eyes with a spark, an ember. “I felt crazy, but, like, in the way that you know a secret, a truth… THE truth, and no one else does.” The truck moves on.
In the article, ‘Pop Music and the War: The Sound of Resignation’, author Jon Pareles relates the evolution of pop music in the years following the initial invasion of Iraq. From the chest-thumping country anthem of ‘Have you forgotten?’ by Darryl Worley to the introspective ‘Welcome to the black parade’ by My Chemical Romance, the nation and pop-culture convulsed with various interpretations and political stances of the war and its cost not only in bullets and bodies but in the invisible scars of the mind and the heart. While punk acts like Anti-Flag released virulent lyrical tirades on the evils of the politics and institutions which created and perpetuated the war, others looked to the promise of the eventual end of hostilities, the optimism found in ‘tomorrow’, such as in John Mayer’s ‘Waiting on the world to change.’ “Now if we had the power to bring our neighbors home from war, they would have never missed a Christmas, no more ribbons on their door, (…) That’s why we’re waiting, waiting on the world to change.”
When we reach Brawley, my hometown, it seems we hit every red light at every intersection, despite being the only cars on the road. “Come on now, who do you think you are? Ha, ha, ha – bless your soul! You really think you’re in control? Well, I think you’re crazy, just like me.” Rocky seems indecisive, then makes a turn that signals he’s taking the long way to my mother’s house, seemingly inventing the route as we go along. “Everything was just chaos, a mess, the whole country, even back home. No one was in charge, in control, the generals, the platoon leaders, the President, nobody. Everyone thought, FELT, like they had everything under control, but it was like…” He lets out a mirthful laugh and bounces a balled-up fist against the steering wheel, “It was funny, seeing everyone act like they knew what they were doing.” We roll slowly down the dark street leading up to my mother’s house, the only house on the block with a light on being the substation of an ambulance company made from a rented house the crews slept in and dispatched out of. Rocky turns the sound down, conscious suddenly that we’re not alone on the back-country roads, but a sleepy residential area. The truck pulls to a stop on the curb outside the house, we sit there in silence, listening to the lyrics.
“My heroes had the heart to lose their lives out on the limb, and all I remember is thinkin’ I wanna be like them. Ever since I was little, it looked like fun, and it’s no coincidence I’ve come, and I can die when I’m done.” He cuts the engine, we sit in the darkened cab, only the sound of our breathing and the pop and sizzle of the truck settling can be heard. “Grampa Max served, my Dad, and, you know, all the movies and stories you hear when you’re younger, about the adventure and the wars, the myths of it all. You want it to be real, and you want it for yourself. You want to be like your heroes, do what they did. Then I grew up and joined, and it was something different, it was mine, it belonged to me. The war was mine. I fought in it. Not Grampa, not my Dad, not whatever movie star in whatever movie. Me. And, you know, it was all or nothing… even when I got back.” I watch him for a while, it may have been a minute, may have been an hour, the universe might have come to a stop for all I knew. He locked eyes with me and I knew he was both looking at and through me, he knew I was there, but he was also back there. Then he smiled a tired but happy smile, his eyes regained focus, he shrugged and hopped out of the truck, walking me to the door.
Approximately 2,226,056 Servicemembers have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since the start of the Global War on Terror according to data from a Veterans for Common Sense statistical analysis. 941,743 of them were deployed more than once, my cousin Rocky among them. His first tour was in 2003 with the Air Force’s Security force, his second with the Army as a Combat Engineer in 2011. He tells me that while ‘Crazy’ takes him back and makes him reflect, he really connects emo and screamo music to his time overseas, as one of his buddies got him hooked on Silverstein, Finch, Saosin, Scary Kids Scaring Kids, and various other groups in-between patrols and missions. He expounds, tying this song and that or this lyric and that to a moment in time that belongs only to memory, to healed scars, to sleepless nights, to unprovoked tears, to a life, his life. We hug and part ways, a strange solemnity between us now, the solemnity of confidence, of disclosure, of honesty, of vulnerability. I am complicit in his memory now, and what had once been a catchy pop hit from my youth becomes a ballad to the trauma and coping of a beloved family member and others like him.