Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Addressing Veteran Suicides In Song And Prose

Earlier this year, Ft. Worth, Texas singer-songwriter Dan Johnson released a new album of songs, paired with a collection of fictional stories co-written with novelist Travis Erwin. The songs and stories include an imaginative cast of characters, from a grievously wounded veteran seeking salvation in drugs and alcohol, to an aging gun smuggler taking one last shot at love.

The album and companion book are a project of a non-profit founded by Johnson called Operation Hemingway — named after the famed author who experienced the carnage of the Spanish Civil War and who, at the age of 61, killed himself. The project is a homage not only to Johnson's own father but also to families like his who have endured the pain and grief of veteran suicide.

The concept came to Johnson during a tour of Hemingway's home in Key West. "I was there in his study. And when the rest of the tour group moved on I hung back." Johnson says he began imagining what it was like for the author near the end. "He couldn't go have any more adventures, he had become trapped in this old man's body. And I wondered what that must be like to get to the point where you don't feel like you have anything else you can give the world," he says.

In the title track on the album, "Hemingway," an American soldier fighting in Afghanistan is nicknamed for the author because he regales his platoon with stories.

So Hemingway tell us a tale. Of some great adventure of champions or fishermen or girls who put wind in men's sails. Take us away, Hemingway.

In the song, Hemingway is grievously wounded by an improvised explosive device and loses both legs and one of his eyes. Shipped home, he finds relief in Percocet and bourbon and eventually takes his life the same way.

Dan Johnson knows something of the subject. The songwriter's relationship with suicide began when he was 10 years old. That year, 1987, Johnson's father — Terry Wayne Johnson, a Vietnam veteran, took his own life.

And I had the feeling — I don't want to take up space anymore. This world would be a much better place if I weren't in it.

"My dad and I were best friends, we went everywhere together. Right up until the day that he died," says Johnson.

In families, suicide can beget suicide. Fast forward 25 years,"there was a particular moment in life," remembers Johnson, "when I had broken up the marriage of a dear friend of mine. And he didn't deserve that and she didn't deserve that and their son didn't deserve that."

Dan Johnson's album cover. Graphic design by Javi Garcia.
/ Jere Tooley
Jere Tooley
Dan Johnson's album cover. Graphic design by Javi Garcia.

So in 2012, on a highway outside of Amarillo, Dan Johnson decided to follow in his father's footsteps: "And I had the feeling — I don't want to take up space anymore. This world would be a much better place if I weren't in it."

Johnson hit the gas. His plan was to smash into the first bridge he came to so his children would get his life insurance. But for mile after mile there was only empty Panhandle.

"And there was nothing to run into. So I had some time to think. I began thinking about my dad and thinking about — I bet he thought he was doing me a favor. And I'm about to do the exact same thing to my own kids."

Johnson pulled off to the side of the road shaking. After an hour he gathered himself and sitting in the middle of vacant West Texas, wrote a song of regret about a cowboy who'd hurt everyone he'd known.

And he'd only learned one way to live in this world. Find what others had and take it away.

It's Johnson's frank assessment of veteran suicide in the title track Hemingway that's drawn the interest of veteran's organizations. It got the attention of Jacob Schick, CEO of 22 Kill, a non-profit whose name is derived from the number of American veterans who kill themselves every day.

"I learned through tragedy that the only way to honor those that came before us and those are going to come after us is to not only live but live well," Schick said. "Look, we're after acceptance, acceptance that it's okay to not be okay. Everything you've ever wanted is on the other side of your fear. You just have to weather the storm."

Like the soldier in Dan Johnson's narrative, Schick was badly wounded. He lost his right leg, broke all his ribs and suffered a traumatic brain injury during combat operations in Iraq in 2004. It was Schick who helped Johnson sharpen his focus to the issue of veteran suicide.

Dan Johnson is taking his project on the road, playing the material to audiences who reflect it back afterward. He's learned to hang around once the show ends because veterans or their loved ones often want to talk to him, to thank him and then share their tales too. An emotional release comes with the storytelling.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting 741741.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Wade Goodwyn is an NPR National Desk Correspondent covering Texas and the surrounding states.