Warrior Songs pairs musicians with veterans to combat PTSD

Jason Moon found healing through music, and today he helps other veterans do the same with Warrior Songs, the Madison-based nonprofit he created in 2011.
guitar with dog tags hanging from it
Courtesy of Getty

Trigger warning: PTSD and suicide

Wisconsin native and musician Jason Moon was an E4 combat engineer with the 724th Army National Guard Battalion in Iraq in 2003 when three young Iraqi base employees were caught stealing from the trash. This was strictly forbidden because electronic waste could be used to build improvised explosive devices, so Moon convinced one of them to confess in exchange for leniency. But his superiors fired the three men anyway.

“The next day [one] came back to the base with an AK-47,” Moon remembers. The guards opened fire. “That was a situation where I caused harm while trying to do good.”

Moon says he has had post-traumatic stress disorder ever since, leading him to attempt suicide in 2008 — and he’s far from alone. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 11% to 20% of veterans have PTSD.

Moon found healing through music, and today he helps other veterans do the same with Warrior Songs, the Madison-based nonprofit he created in 2011 that pairs willing veterans with professional songwriters to share their stories through song. On Aug. 8, Warrior Songs released its third CD, “The Last Thing We Ever Do,” and Moon has been on the road promoting it, performing and sharing stories not only about PTSD, but also military sexual trauma, or MST.

“Music and songwriting do something that’s unexplainable,” says Moon, who has given 50,000 free copies of his CDs to veterans. “We come home and have these symptoms and we don’t tell anyone. Other veterans hear my story and think, ‘Wow, I thought I was the only one.’ ”

That connection became poignantly clear in 2012. Moon had just finished a performance in Pennsylvania when an audience member, who turned out to be a Vietnam veteran, approached him.

“He said to me, ‘You just saved my life,’ ” Moon remembers. The veteran shared that he’d had a suicide plan but now felt less alone. “ ‘But you understand what we’re going through, and to see the look on the civilians’ faces gives me hope that they understand, too.’ ”

Moon has become aware of 34 similar stories since founding Warrior Songs, and they keep him motivated. He hopes to produce seven more discs, each focusing on specific subgroups of veterans, including Latino, Black, Asian, Native and LGBTQ Americans.

Dealing with the material can sometimes be a daunting task, says Kyle Rightley, a Madison musician and songwriter who has worked on all three CDs. In his recent song “Seawolf 7-6,” Rightley tackled the memories of Navy veteran Bill Martin, a gunship pilot in Vietnam who has a recurring dream that his helicopter is under fire.

“The process is difficult because I want to tell the story accurately, and to do that I can’t shy away from the violence and pain in it,” Rightley says. “The process gives me uncomfortable topics to deal with, but I feel a responsibility to the vets to tell their story.”

University of Wisconsin–Madison professor emeritus Doug Bradley, co-author of “We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War” and a U.S. Army combat correspondent from 1970-71, worked with Minnesota songwriter Jake Froelke on his song “Look Out Sam.”

“I think all 3 million of us who served in Vietnam have some remnant of PTSD,” Bradley says. “Music has the ability to comfort and calm, and has an honesty we don’t find in other places. But I’m biased because music saved me in Vietnam and has been saving me every day ever since.”

Moon agrees. “Music legitimized my wound and has taken away the shame,” he says. “My hope, too, is that civilians come to like the songs before understanding what they are really about.”

Michael Muckian writes this arts and entertainment column monthly. Reach him at mmuckian@icloud.com.Footer that says Subscribe with covers of Madison Magazine