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Soldier Hard's hip-hop lyrics reveal PTSD's rough edges

Iraq war veteran Jeff Barillaro is using his hip hop music to help fellow soldiers returning from war to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. NBCNews.com's Alex Witt reports.

Sleep-starved from a repeating nightmare and weary from wondering when all that therapy would reignite his fading hope, former Army tank gunner Jeff Barillaro took aim at his stubborn target with an attack as brilliant as it was simple.

He decided to break up with PTSD.

And he would do it in his increasingly famous style — studio-recorded hip-hop, under his stage name, Soldier Hard.

“I thought: If I could write a letter to PTSD, what would I say to PTSD? Then I thought: Oh, wow, this is going to be powerful,” said Barillaro, an Iraq War veteran, out of the service since 2010, who has steadily gained fame among active-duty troops, young veterans and their families for his bare, often-bleak music about the daily demons of living with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. 

Last May, “Dear PTSD,” streamed from his busy mind to his scribbling fingers and, ultimately into a microphone: “Did you listen good when I said, Leave me be? PTSD, get the hell away from me. Cuz you held me down, didn’t even let me sleep, didn’t even let me breathe, didn’t let me live in peace.”

Courtesy of Omar Diaz Photography

Jeff Barillaro, a.k.a. Soldier Hard.

Within the genre of modern military music, Barillaro has ventured a bit further from the mainstream with his growing stockpile of PTSD songs — lyrics and beats tapped from his anger, isolation, divorce, and what he calls “my dark world,” all byproducts, he believes, of extended combat tension and witnessed war horrors.

He has recorded 14 albums, laying down his first tracks on “a minimum setup” at Camp Taji, Iraq, where he discovered that “between missions I could create music as my escape.” He has launched a nonprofit record label, Redcon-1 Music Group, that already boasts a roster containing an Air Force staff sergeant, a Navy sailor, Marine Staff Sgt. Jerry Lozano, and two Army soldiers, including Fort-Hood-based Spc. Stephen Hobbs.

'Music has saved my life'
“I wanted to give other military artists and veterans a chance to tell their stories,” Barillaro said. “Because I know how much music has saved my life. Maybe it can save their life, too.

“I want them to know that same feeling I get when it comes to music, when I’m writing it, and when I’m done and I’m listening to it. I forget where I’m at, any problems I’m having, any bills I can’t pay. It keeps my mind clear. It keeps me sane. That’s why I believe music can really heal people.”

Some of the fans Barillaro has attracted say they are alive only because of the ex-gunner’s lyrical lash outs at anxieties affecting an estimated 20 percent of the men and women who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One night in 2007, former Army Corp. and Iraq veteran Keith Briggs said he “was sitting at the computer with a bottle in one hand and a gun in the other,” contemplating shooting himself. He had been diagnosed with PTSD in 2005 just after returning from his second deployment.

Courtesy of Jeff Barillaro

Jeff Barillaro looks at old records of former Iraqi prisoners at Camp Taji, Iraq, after U.S. forces took control of the base.

“For some reason I decided to get on Youtube and I found his song ‘Support Us.’ It changed my outlook on PTSD,” said Briggs, 30, who lives in Shelbyville, Ky. “I knew I was not alone. Soldier Hard's music has saved my life. It has stopped me from suicide. PTSD is a real threat to veterans. Soldier Hard’s music is the tool to fight this."

PTSD expert Dr. Sydney Savion, a retired military officer who has heard Barillaro’s songs, said many of the artist’s themes — particularly when he confronts PTSD — could evoke positive emotions in listeners with post-combat stress. They feel, she said, that he is speaking directly to them, forging a vital bond across the Internet and reinforcing the notion that they are not alone as they all strive to recover.

“Research does suggest that certain music can regulate negative emotions,” said Savion, a Texas-based applied behavior scientist. “But conversely, some therapists have found some music with spoken words or lyrics could cause and has caused agitation when its played for those diagnosed with PTSD. So there is a duality between whether the music will evoke a positive feeling or whether it will conjure up those memories that can cause negative feelings. Not everyone’s going to respond to the music in the same way.

“But there is no definitive line that a rapper should or shouldn’t cross,” she added, “because each individual will respond to it differently.”

'Telling horror stories'
Of course, the quiet irony underscoring Barillaro’s art: PTSD has typically — and purposely — remained a private struggle for many young war veterans. Within the military, the unofficial mantra has been: “Take care of your own business,” or worse: “Getting help is for the weak.” That has affixed PTSD with a social stain common to other mental health issues.

Barillaro, however, has literally shouted out almost every step of his path away from PTSD, stigma and all.

At first, he admits, he was tentative about revealing too much.

“I didn’t want to be looked at as a weak person, and I didn’t want people to be scared (of me). But I was just going to say it because it’s how I feel,” Barillaro said. “And I know there’s a lot of people out there who feel the same way I did. So I decided: I’m going to write it and I’m going to start telling horror stories.

“And then it became not about myself anymore. Because I started seeing how much the music would help other people. Then I was like: Alright, I’m just going to let loose now and let everything out because these people out there are going through same thing I was going through and this gives them some hope.”

The music has helped him. It hasn’t cured him completely. The old nightmare still haunts his sleep: He’s with his buddies in a “Middle Eastern setting,” he said. They begin to take fire from the enemy. His friends are shooting back. But in the dream, Barillaro tosses away his weapon, hides his head and begins sobbing.

“That same dream always, always. But that’s not how I reacted while I was in combat. I was on it," he said. "I don’t even sleep anymore when I wake up from one.”

Courtesy of Jeff Barillaro

Jeff Barillaro, a.k.a. Soldier Hard, crouches in an abandoned building at Camp Taji, Iraq, in 2005

Which — to no one’s surprise — inspired a song released last July: “Intro-Therapy Session.” He takes listeners inside a conversation with a psychologist during which he is asked about any nightmares he’s been experiencing.

I’m scared, crying and I’m frightened. Then I wake up hella sweaty," he raps. "Tell me why this be. I just wanna die, please tell me: Why me?

The song’s final verse — accompanied by an ominous, sharp pop and a woman's scream — is not pretty. But, as Barillaro has been preaching all these years, neither is living each day with PTSD.