On one of the many days Leo Dunson wanted to die, the Iraq veteran put a gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. The loaded weapon misfired. For the troubled formersoldier, it was another inexplicable failure, like his divorce or inability to make friends after returning from the war.
In a Las Vegas recording studio, Dunson rapped about his life: “What’s wrong with me? Got PTSD. These pills ain’t working, man, I still can’t think.”
One in six Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder in 2011, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Some committed suicide. Others are receiving mental health services at military hospitals. Many more are like Dunson and have refused help, according to research by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD.
Dunson, who was discharged from the Army in 2008 and diagnosed by the military with PTSD, uses his music to examine his disappointment with veteran life. It is the only thing keeping him alive, he said. He refuses to attend counseling or visit his local VA hospital.
The use of music to heal war wounds is part of an emerging field of alternative treatment being embraced by military officials eager to help veterans suffering from PTSD. In Wisconsin, New Jersey, California and other states, government doctors in recent months have launched experimental music therapy programs that rely on the smoothing sounds of classical or acoustic music to help veterans get well.
But Dunson, now 26, isn’t listening to serene tunes in some quiet room. His self-treatment is violent images and words, the gritty marriage of a genre born in low-income, black neighborhoods and the horrors of a foreign war.
He made five albums in four years, all focused on his training and service as an infantryman. Thousands of fans followed him on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, where he posts his songs. He enrolled in college, hoping to pursue a career in public service. This year, Dunson moved into his first bachelor apartment.
And still, he describes himself as a man without happiness or friends.
“You are like, what the heck did I do to deserve this?” he said.
In his music, Dunson recalls pressing a gun against an enemy’s mouth, becoming an alcoholic and hitting his wife. He laments learning how to kill when he was only 20 years old.
“I’m back and forth in my head and I don’t know what’s wrong,” he raps in “PTSD.” “At nights I shake. I feel like a stranger is in my home. Me and my wife can’t get along.”
On a different record, he confessed: “My mind ain’t been put to rest. And they wonder why all I talk about is these bullets and how a trigger of a gun I want to pull it and how badly my military training I want to misuse it.”
In yet another song, Dunson expressed the words he would never tell his family: “Honestly, over there, I wish I had died.”
He was 18 when he enlisted, eager to make a difference and serve his country after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. He grew up in the Army, meeting the mother of his only child near his base in Alaska.