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A country song about PTSD: 'All you've got left are these pieces'

Everything you see in the music video happened to Marine-turned-country-singer Stephen Cochran: Pushing the girl away, boozing into oblivion, the gun on the blanket. It all went down last year. 

Courtesy of Stephen Cochran

Stephen Cochran, a former Marine recon scout and now a country-music singer, has penned a new song about PTSD - combat-related symptoms that almost claimed his life in 2011.

Even the actor who portrays Cochran is, himself, a former Marine and Iraq veteran who knows of post-traumatic stress, who has wrangled with identical demons. The actor was not acting.

The only on-screen tweak from reality was the type firearm shown. In his dimmest hour, behind a locked door in his Nashville home, exhausted, alone, and telling himself: “I’m done,” Cochran rested a loaded shotgun against his bed.

“I was just trying to get the nerve. I had it planned out,” Cochran told NBC News. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I was tired of taking all these pills. I was going through a breakup. Couldn’t write anymore. Watching everything fall apart. I was ready to check out.”


Then: salvation, and a surreal rescue scene worthy of an epic ballad. His dog, Semper Fi, began scratching relentlessly at his door, bloodying her paws. Next, Cochran’s ex-fiancé unexpectedly entered the house, simply to retrieve a forgotten item, he said. She saw the anxious dog. She expected the worst. She barged into the bedroom, spotted the gun and physically restrained Cochran. 

But from anguish came inspiration. Amid an existence long blurred by PTSD — the residue of Afghanistan firefights, Marine buddies lost in combat, and his own nearly fatal injury — one question blazed in Cochran's head. He jotted it down: “How do you paint a picture back in focus?”

“It was the only way I could describe trying to put your life back together, literally trying to do the impossible,” he said.

Around that single thought, Cochran penned an entire song, “Pieces,”an ode to the blackness from which he was aching to escape, a tale of reconnecting the scattered fragments of his shattered world, and a message of solidarity for his military brothers and sisters. The single — part of a CD with the same title — will be released in this country on Nov. 11. The song already has charted in Europe.

“It’s not just my story. So many of us think about (suicide) because you just get so tired, so tired of being the crazy guy. Or of hearing: ‘He’s weird.’ Or of hearing: ‘We can’t hire you because we really don’t know what post-traumatic stress is and you might come back and kill us all.’

“I really wrote it as my own healing, for what I was going through,” added Cochran, 33, who teamed with fellow musician Trevor Rosen to complete the song. It took them only 15 minutes.

But after playing it at several veterans’ benefits, Cochran heard from service members up and down the chain of command how they, too, connected with the lyrics. That feedback has turned “Pieces” into the soundtrack of the singer’s ongoing crusade.

“We have an epidemic of suicides in the military right now. At this point, we are physically losing both of these wars in the United States of America, not overseas.

Related: First opera about Iraq War reaches out to veteran suffering from PTSD

“If we want to stop our suicides, we need a complete overhaul in our ‘warrior’ terminology in this country, in the way we train our families (how to relate with homecoming veterans). That’s what I want to start with ‘Pieces,’ and the video. I want to get a bridge between our civilian population and the veterans. And I want to reach into the rooms of some of these guys and girls — who are just sitting in the dark and watching TV all day like I did — and let them know: You’re not alone.”

Perhaps the most ironic thread of Cochran’s story coils back to the days of his first, true musical success. In 2007, one year after retiring from the Marines, he scored a country hit with “Friday Night Fireside,” the culmination of a childhood dream for a guy raised in Nashville. The accompanying video was voted No. 1 by Great American Country fans for five straight weeks.

courtesy of Stephen Cochran

After his the light-armoured vehicle crashed in Afghanistan, Stephen Cochran fractured vertebrae and suffered a traumatic brain injury in 2004. Told he would never walk again, an experimental procedure by VA surgeons restored his steps.

Two years later, Cochran became the national spokesman for research and development at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs — his thank you for a successful, experimental surgery performed by VA surgeons who repaired his broken back. In 2004, Cochran had splintered several lumbar vertebrae when the vehicle in which he was riding through southern Afghanistan slammed into gaping hole that once held an anti-tank mine. He couldn’t feel or move his legs for months, and was told by doctors that he’d never take steps again. He walked.

The former Marine reconnaissance scout, part of the U.S. force that first knocked the Taliban out of Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, next teamed up with the VA to become its national co-chair for voluntary service. In that role, Cochran toured America, urging veterans to seek help for combat stress, “to let them know you don’t have to suffer in silence,” recalled Rosetta Fisher-Oliver, the VA’s chief of voluntary service for Tennessee and for parts of Kentucky and Georgia.

In 2011, Cochran recorded the music video “Hope” for the VA to try and cement his get-help pleas to fellow troops. What few knew: Cochran was losing his own hope.

“We worked on that video together, and the week he was supposed to make the video, I tried to get in touch with him, just to check to see that he was going to be on time,” said Fisher-Oliver.

She was unable to reach him, however, because Cochran was by then seeking treatment — after reaching the brink of suicide in his bedroom.

“Here’s a person who’s trying to get the message out and he’s still struggling with issues too,” she said. “He later told me: ‘I almost wasn’t here.’ ”

Cochran now acknowledges that he carried “almost dual personalities” during that time. In front of fellow veterans and fans, he sang, smiled, shook hands and signed autographs. “But I also had to deal with this monster I have inside my head and inside my gut, all day.” At home, his family and his then-fiancé, he admitted, took the brunt of his mood swings and emotional detachment.

courtesy of Stephen Cochran

After breaking his back in Afghanistan, Cochran was greeted by a fellow Marine. He later regained the ability to walk.

“You’re screaming out: Please help me understand what I’m going through, because I have no clue! That’s why you see the high number of divorces in the military,” Cochran said. “I told my fiancé: ‘I don’t know what I’m dealing with so the best thing for you to do is just leave and you’ll thank me later.' ”

She left.

But in what could have been Cochran’s final minutes, she came back, and burst into his bedroom.

After Cochran artfully turned that horrid moment into a song, he met the man picked to portray his downward spiral in the “Pieces” video: Daniel Dean, a Nashville songwriter and actor. He also looks a bit like Cochran. He seemed like a logical choice.

In talking with Dean, though, Cochran learned that the man was a Marine sniper who did three tours in Iraq. And they both had lived for years with the lingering anxieties that often remain for veterans who log months of combat exposure.

“He told me: 'This is my story, too,'” Cochran remembers. “That dude lived that.”

They also agreed with the concept that “Pieces” would be not just the first music video to delve so deeply into PTSD. It would break ranks with dozens of other standard, country-music videos about the U.S. military — mini movies that often include battle scenes that, some critics say, glorify war.

“Stephen does country music and so do I, and there’s a lot of military songs and a lot of them are pretty much B.S.” Dean said. “You’ve got the Toby Keith type stuff and that’s all right for what it is. But very rarely does a song hit a military person the way this one does.

“Just because it’s real. It’s one of the things I doubt you’ll hear any of the other country stars singing about. It’s (usually) more of the patriotic angle. Most military members aren’t songwriters like Stephen and I. So, I guess that lets us be able to sing things that you can’t say or can't deal with.” 

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