U.S. Army National Guardsman Jason Moon found his calling in life after serving in Iraq.
Moon, a singer-songwriter and survivor of post-traumatic stress disorder, is the founder and president of Warrior Songs, Inc. The Madison-based nonprofit helps veterans cope with PTSD through the creative arts, especially music.
Offering an example, Moon recalls finishing a speech — “Seven Things You Never Say to a Veteran” — to a veterans group in Pennsylvania in 2012. An audience member, a Vietnam-era veteran, approached him.
“He said to me, ‘You just saved my life,” Moon remembers. “I have the rope at home in my garage and I was going home to hang myself after this. But you understand what we’re going through and to see the looks on the civilians’ faces gives me hope that they understand, too.’”
From what he’s heard, Moon estimates 32 suicides have been prevented by exposure to his music. He’s received about 150 letters and emails from family members thanking him for helping loved ones struggling with PTSD.
Moon, who holds a bachelor’s degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and a master’s degree in religious studies from Cardinal Stritch University, feels an obligation to help.
“If you’re walking by a lake, see someone drowning and have the capacity to save them, it’s immoral if you fail to act,” he says.
Born in Milwaukee and raised in Eagle River, Moon enlisted in the Army National Guard at age 17 — right out of high school.
He served eight years, including two on active reserve, while at UW-Oshkosh. His first tour ended weeks before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Moon re-enlisted in July 2002, because he wanted to keep America safe.
“At that time there was no TSA, no Homeland Security and I thought the Guard would be utilized to protect the nation, but Uncle Sam had other plans,” Moon says.
His unit was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and he was stationed there for 11 months.
As an E4 combat engineer with the Tomahawk unit of the 724th Army National Guard Battalion “Charlie Company,” his duties involved road maintenance and water security, which kept him off the front lines. But that’s not the same as being out of harm’s way.
Moon had four brushes with death that he knows of and he spent many nights lying awake in fear of surprise attacks.
“I still can’t handle July 4 because the sound of the fireworks going up over here was the sound of artillery rounds coming down over there,” Moon says. “We all lived in canvas tents and, when you heard that sound, you curled up in a ball and prayed that this time wasn’t going to be your turn.”
Moon was troubled by the moral ambiguity of some guardsmen who “just really wanted to kill brown people,” he says. Iraqi civilians were often treated the same as armed combatants.
“We were constantly aggressive to civilians and that became a moral injury, part of my shame and regret,” acknowledges Moon.
One incident is burned into his memory, even though he didn’t witness it.
To protect against surprise attacks, Army policy forbade anyone to stop vehicle convoys, to approach the convoy on foot or by vehicle, or to stand in its way. One day, a girl taking her sheep to water crossed paths with a convoy and was run over. The girl and many sheep were killed. Unit officers met with the girl’s family and, at gunpoint, forced them to sign an agreement not to press charges and accept financial compensation for their losses, says Moon.
Things did not go well when Moon returned from Iraq in 2004. The horrors he experienced led to an almost fatal case of PTSD. Moon says “prolonged exposure to danger made my brain and body hyper-aroused. I couldn’t turn it off.”
Moon continued his education at Cardinal Stritch but crippling bouts of insomnia kept him awake for days. He turned to alcohol, going on binges for days at a time, followed by visits to the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, where he’d be given antidepressant drugs.
The cycle repeated, from 2004 to 2008, when Moon began feeling he was a danger to the safety of his first wife and son. He believed that he was a threat that needed to be eliminated.
Moon had been collecting all his VA-issued medication, including 14 kinds of sleeping pills and antidepressants, in a large jar. One night he began swallowing them by the handful, washing them down with whiskey until he passed out.
He woke in the suicide recovery ward at a VA hospital.
“With the VA, if you try to commit suicide and fail, you get to go to the head of the line, so I started getting better treatment,” Moon says. “That’s a shame because a lot of vets don’t survive their suicide attempts and you shouldn’t have to go to that extreme for a chance to get better treatment.”
Moon turned to his music, which had carried him through the war and he wrote songs to exorcise his demons.
“Writing and singing about my condition helped me externalize my PTSD,” Moon says. “When it started helping other vets as well, I felt like I was walking through a minefield and marking my steps so that no one else would be at risk of making the same fatal mistakes.”
By 2010, Moon had enough material to record the CD Trying to Find My Way Home. The title track became his signature tune — one he performs frequently at veterans’ meetings and events. Response to the music was swift and positive. Vets found a voice for their feelings through his music.
By the end of 2011, Moon had created Warrior Songs, Inc. Music is key to what his organization offers, with Moon on the road speaking and performing for audiences throughout the year.
“We need to do this because the VA can never do anything fast enough,” says Moon.
Setting up and funding his nonprofit hasn’t been easy. But Moon’s raised $250,000. “So I must be pretty good at it,” he says.
Warrior Songs recently attracted the attention of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, which awarded the organization a grant for the 2017 Warrior Songs Creative Arts Healing Retreat in Racine.
Still, the organization relies mostly on donations and the occasional sale of CDs — although most of those are given away to vets and those who work with them.
The organization’s second CD, If You Have to Ask…Warrior Songs Vol. 1, released last November, features the words, music and experience of other vets suffering from PTSD. Three of the 14 songs on the album were written and recorded by vets.
Moon describes the songs as “truth-telling exercises” and he accepts the veterans’ stories in whatever form they want to share them.
One veteran shared his story in an interview, another in drawings. Songwriters helped craft them into music.
Stories included that of a woman Moon met at an event in Georgia who was raped while serving in the U.S. Navy. Another story came from a male service veteran who was raped by his drill sergeant and one from a former U.S. Marine forced to kill two young Iraqi boys who ran toward him while he was standing guard.
“The boys had bombs strapped to them, so he called it right, but that doesn’t make it any easier to live with,” Moon says.
A second album in the series will focus on women in war. Moon hopes his organization can release a new CD every two years.
Moon hopes the songs will help civilians understand the depth of pain and disability caused by PTSD.
“The veterans have to carry this guilt all by themselves,” Moon says. “It’s too much and that’s why we’re losing 20 vets to suicide in this country each and every day.”
The veteran suicide rate is roughly 50 percent higher than that of the civilian population. Male veterans comprise 83 percent of the suicides, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
But the rate is falling. The current daily suicide rate is down from the 22 per day recorded in 2011, which means there are 700 fewer deaths per year.
Moon bridles at labeling PTSD a “disorder,” because the word implies to veterans that it can be prevented or cured.
Moon knows that’s not the case.
“I have my good days and bad days, but at least I now know what it is and can recognize it,” Moon says. “You can decrease the severity and frequency of the symptoms, but I have never met a veteran who has been cured of PTSD. It never goes away.”
For more information on Jason Moon and Warrior Songs or to order CDs, visit warriorsongs.org.