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'Red Flags': Army takes note as vet rapper Soldier Hard's lyrics tackle suicide

NBC News

Jeff Barillaro, aka Soldier Hard, is an Iraq War veteran who has put his hip-hop talents to work. Barillaro sings gritty songs he hopes will raise awareness of PTSD and suicide.

A hip-hop song beseeching battle buddies to be on watch for suicidal signals among their peers is being used — informally for now — within the Army as a prevention tool to help the branch stem an ongoing suicide crisis.

“Red Flags,” penned and recorded by former Army tank gunner Jeff Barillaro, was created as an urgent call for current troops as well as Iraq and Afghanistan veterans not to ignore or miss the sometimes-subtle yet often-obvious behavioral changes known to precede many suicides, Barillaro said.

“We’ve seen the red flags but we were blind to them,” said Barillaro, an Iraq War veteran who performs under the stage name Soldier Hard. Many of his songs and videos draw on his own raw experiences with a diagnosis of severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Through the end of March, the Army reported 81 apparent suicides this year among active-duty, Army Reserve and National Guard troops — one death every 26.7 hours. (Some cases remain under investigation). The fatal pace has increased slightly. During 2012, the Army reported 324 suicides within those groups — one death every 27 hours, according to the Pentagon. The latest estimate from the Department of Veterans Affairs showed that 22 veterans commit suicide daily.

The Army — the branch most significantly impacted by suicides — has implemented an array of anti-suicide initiatives, but an Army Reserve adviser in Connecticut sees such a potent message in Barillaro’s lyrics, he believes the song can save lives.

“I want to share his music with anyone willing ,to listen. I think anyone can relate to 'Red Flags,' " said Army 1st Sgt. Steve Kreider, who is based at an Army Reserve Center in Middletown, Conn. “It strikes a chord that this is something we really need to keep an eye open for. There are warning signs we have to recognize not only in other people but in ourselves — I'm being reclusive or I'm drinking too much — these are all signs that something is going on in your life that could be detrimental down the road." 

'Maybe we can stop it'
Kreider has shared “Red Flags” with some of his soldiers in Connecticut — and "for everyone of them, it's had a positive impact," he said. Meanwhile, another Army veteran recently played the song for soldiers at Fort Knox, Ky., Kreider said. 

Moreover, Kreider has now shared the video "with a lot of different higher-ranking people. I'm sure that they're looking at it closely to see if this is something that would fit the mold of what the military can utilize as a tool," he said. 

"And if not, word of mouth is a powerful took itself," he added. "It's close to going viral." 

Since the song’s video was released April 17 on YouTube, it has received nearly 17,000 views. The lyrics are rooted in two actual suicides that stuck hard with Barillaro as he researched the topic by clicking through a blur of military obituaries.

The first verse details a well-decorated Iraq War veteran who, once he shed his uniform and medals, lost his pride yet gained anger while grappling with PSTD, a traumatic brain injury, alcoholism and isolation before clutching a gun and scrawling a farewell note: “I’m better off dead.” In verse two, an active-duty soldier is devastated by survivor guilt after the combat loss of a close friend. He ultimately hanged himself in his bedroom. (Two soldiers pictured in the video are living service members who allowed their images to be used.)

Iraq War veteran and hip-hop artist Jeff "Soldier Hard" Barillaro discovered that sharing his experience with PTSD in music helped him and other veterans deal with the effects of the condition. Barillaro talks to MSNBC's Alex Witt.

“He was a hard charger but now he’s just ate up,” Soldier Hard sings of the second man.

“‘Ate up’ – that’s a military term for being all messed up, for not being a good soldier anymore. This guy used to be good but after he came back, he just shut down,” Barillaro said. “That’s a red flag. But we didn’t see that.

“Real topics. People can relate to these. I decided to turn their stories into a song,” he added. “A lot of these guys, they’re showing signs before they actually do it. I decided I had to do something. Maybe we can stop it.”