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Military & Veterans' Issues

Texas Singer-Songwriter Battles Veteran Suicide With 'Project Hemingway'

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Photo courtesy of Dan Johnson

Texas singer-songwriter Dan Johnson doesn’t flinch when asked about veteran suicide. He’s lived it, written songs about it and is now on an open-ended quest to lessen it.

Since July 2018, Johnson’s been on the road sharing his new album, Project Hemingway, a collection of five songs and an audio book of stories co-written with novelist Travis Erwin. On Friday, he’ll perform in San Antonio with support from the Ecumenical Center, the USO and Rackspace.

“I made a commitment to do whatever it takes to do this for one year of my life,” the Fort Worth native explained. “I don't make any money doing it. The work is tiring. It's very emotionally draining. But I decided I'm going to take one year, tour every place in the country that I can find where they'll listen to me, and get this message out.”

The album’s title track, “Hemingway,” tells the tale of an American soldier stationed in Afghanistan. He’s blessed with the gift of storytelling, and his platoon-mates rely on him to provide an escape from the realities of battlefield.

“And lord he could tell you a story so well, you’d get wrapped in the yarns that he spun. 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.”

But when Hemingway returns home at age 19 -- grievously injured by an improvised explosive device -- he looks for a way out.

“Through his personal hell, not a soul would he tell, too modest to speak of his pain. While innocent, ignorant, well-meaning friends of his said it would all be okay.”

The song culminates with Hemingway pulling off the road and into a old hotel, exhausted by his daily struggles and the toll of recalling his near-death experience. He seeks relief from Percocet and bourbon, a toxic combination.

A Personal Message

At age 10, Dan Johnson lost his father, a Vietnam veteran, to suicide. He said he struggled for decades with the emotional fallout, richoteting between sadness and anger.

“You can very quickly be angry at that person for leaving you, for taking themselves away from you,” Johnson said. But he later began to think of suicide as something people do selflessly.

“There's any number of things--including combat stress--that could cause a person to start down this path. Eventually they get to a place where they truly feel like everyone around them would be better off if they weren't here…. Most people who end up taking their life--they don't want to die. They just can't keep living the way that they're living.”

Johnson founded the non-profit Operation Hemingway to decrease the rate of US veteran suicide by educating the public about warning signs, action steps, and treatment options. He now travels throughout the country, speaking to groups and performing his music.

Anecdotally, Johnson said, community-based involvement is a cornerstone of recovery.

Mary Beth Fisk, executive director of the Ecumenical Center, was one of the forces behind bringing Johnson to San Antonio. With the show, she said, she hopes to showcase mental health resources and foster the community around veterans in need.

“The Ecumenical Center serves our veterans--those who suffer from PTSD, certain types of trauma, depression, anxiety-- and their families who suffer right along with them. We have licensed professional counselors who are very adept at working through using all types of modalities in the counseling world, from our cognitive behavioral therapy to things like art therapy, and music therapy, and the like,” Fisk explained.

“Our hope in having Dan here is to encourage those that might need to reach out for help” she said, “and letting them know that there's a place that they can receive that help at no cost or very little cost to them.”

“In an Operation Hemingway show, the goal is to use music as a way to bring people together in an uplifting environment,” Johnson said. “Oftentimes, when you start talking about something as serious as posttraumatic stress or even suicide with veterans, people immediately think it's going to be a very difficult, very dark, tough conversation.”

After every show, people approach him. Some say thanks. Some get upset. Others offer hugs.

“There has not been one time that I didn't have at least one person who said, ‘Man, can I talk to you? I’ve got some stuff going on.’”

 

The public is invited to come enjoy the performance and show support. The concert will be held at the Rackspace Event Center, 5000 Walzem Rd., San Antonio, Texas 78218 from 5:00 to 7:00 p.m. Food and refreshments will be offered. The event is free. Please reserve seats as soon as possible by emailing Lcenanovic@ecrh.org or calling 210-616-0885.

Carson Frame can be reached at carson@tpr.org or on Twitter @carson_frame

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.