When Marine Cpl. Mischelle Rae Johnston was deployed to Iraq, she was not prepared for how different her life would be from the way it was in slow paced eastern Montana where she was raised. She now says the seven months she spent in Iraq forever changed her perceptions of life, love and family.
Her detailed perceptions, along with those of a dozen of her military comrades are part of a new hip-hop CD called "Voices from the Frontline" due out Tuesday.
"Music was an outlet, a way to keep sane among the insanity," said 23-year-old Johnston whose song "Desert Vacation" describes the emotional strain on a soldier in combat.
"I think the hardest part is not the physical aspect, but the emotional strain you go through," said Johnston, who wrote the lyrics while on active duty in Al Asad, Iraq. "You come so close to snapping, but you had to keep your cool and calm and you never know what is going to happen. Then, all of a sudden a bomb drops."
The CD is the vision of Joel Spielman, a Los Angeles music producer who spent almost two years seeking out soldiers to tell their stories through music after he saw a documentary that featured the parents of soldiers reading letters from their deployed sons and daughters.
"I just wanted it to be as real as possible," said Spielman. "[Music] is an amazing form of expression, and 'freestyling' was the only way these soldiers could get through the emotional heartbreak of the situation. There is a whole other battle that happens on the Army base before a battle, during a battle and after a battle.
Spielman says he wanted to document that hidden battle and decided that a hip-hop and "spoken word" compilation was the best way for these soldiers to express their raw emotions, including fear of death, longing for home and anger at the war and pride in their duty to serve.
The 12 tracks on the CD tell the tales of life in Iraq from the soldiers' perspective. Most of the "spoken word" audio vignettes between the CD's tracks were recorded by the soldiers while in the field. Some of the tracks have a backdrop of gunfire and soldiers yelling on the battlefield.
In an introductory vignette, Army Sgt. Chris Tomlinson of Newark, Del., says, "This ain't for a paycheck. This ain't for us to be known. This is for somebody to understand a soldier's life."
"Your eyes are never going to see what we saw. This is the closest we can get to telling you about the experience without you having to be there," said Johnston, who was the only female in her division at the time of her deployment in 2004.
The idea of music as therapy is a theme that rings throughout the CD.
Johnston regularly wrote lyrics and sang into a tape recorder her mother gave her before she left home.
"[Music] was my outlet, my escape from the repetitive tasks, the stress, from Iraq itself. My body stayed grounded, but my soul, mind and spirit were free to wonder," she said.
In her track "Desert Vacation," she sings that there is "no rest for the weary, no peace for the bold" and that "Uncle Sam seems to have a different plan for my life than my own."
Frankie Mayo, the mother of rapper Tomlinson, who goes by "Prophet" on the CD, said it was important to her that her son got his feelings out and didn't keep them bottled up.