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For One Soldier, Rap Is A Powerful Postwar Weapon

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."

Barillaro (center), of Vallejo, Calif., is introduced to a roomful of new recruits at the National Guard Armory in Evansville, Ind. First Sgt. Larry Lightburne (right), who organized a performance by Barillaro at the armory, heard about the rapper through his wife, who found his lyrics comforting while he was stationed in Iraq.
/ Erik M. Lunsford for NPR
Erik M. Lunsford for NPR
Barillaro (center), of Vallejo, Calif., is introduced to a roomful of new recruits at the National Guard Armory in Evansville, Ind. First Sgt. Larry Lightburne (right), who organized a performance by Barillaro at the armory, heard about the rapper through his wife, who found his lyrics comforting while he was stationed in Iraq.

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.

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Daniel Zwerdling is a correspondent in NPR's Investigations Unit.