NPR’s All Things Considered Supports Singer/Songwriter
Dan Johnson in Addressing Veteran Suicides with the “Hemingway” Project
Ft. Worth, Texas, singer/songwriter Dan Johnson has spent his entire adult life contemplating the after effects of military service after his father, Terry Johnson, took his own life when Dan was only 10 years old.
Everyday our country salutes our military service men and women for their service, but their journey does not end when that service is over. Many suffer from mental, physical and emotional issues long after their duty is done, and according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs 21 active military veterans take their own lives every day.
Johnson released the “Hemingway” project earlier this year, a five song EP and companion book that addresses this issue that is considered a crises in our country. The “Hemingway” project is a deeply emotional piece of work that has attracted national attention since its release both through the music and stories and the US tour.
NPR’s (National Public Radio) All Things Considered just featured Johnson’s personal message to all military veterans, and all of us civilians who can truly help and become a part of the solution.
I don’t know if anything could have saved my dad. But I do know that even as a kid, I saw warning signs. And I wish someone would have had the courage to speak up on his behalf and do something to help. — Dan Johnson
Can you share your story?
Both my parents were military. In fact, I was born on a military base in Italy. So, for the first several years of my life, I was a military brat traveling around. My dad was a firefighter, and he fell through the roof of a building while fighting a fire. It left him pretty badly injured, so the military discharged him. Unfortunately, they discharged him without any benefits. They basically said he was too injured to work for them, but not injured enough for them to pay for his disability. He was unable to perform a lot of jobs which left him struggling to provide for our family. That led to a lot of feelings of inadequacy, then depression, and eventually mental illness. When I was 10 years old, actually the day before my 11th birthday, he hanged himself.
Dad was a great guitar player and singer, but he did it as a hobby. I didn’t take up music until after he died. In fact, I struggled a lot and I was very angry. When Eric Clapton released to the song “Tears in Heaven,” I was so moved that I went to the closet and got my dad’s old guitar out to learn to play it so that I could learn to play that song. My decision to pursue music full-time is partly because I know I get to live out a dream that he was never able to pursue. And now someone gives me a microphone every night so it gives me a chance to tell my story and to encourage other people to stand up for those who might be struggling so badly that they are considering taking their own lives.
How did you come to choose “Hemingway” as the title to your project?
I’m a huge fan of Ernest Hemingway, and even more than his writing, the actual man that he was in life. He was such an amazing character. From his times in the war to his travels around the world, boxing, fishing, and the massive impact he had on American literature. At the end of his life he was too old to have any more adventures and he was unable to share any more amazing stories. It left him feeling like he had nothing more to gain and nothing more to give, so he took his own life. I came up with the idea of doing a concept album while I was standing in his study in Key West. I was taking a tour of his home there and they haven’t changed anything in his study. His typewriter, his notepads, his whiskey bottle, it’s all still sitting there like he could walk back in at any moment and pick up where he left off.
So when the tour moved on, I hung back and stayed behind to just be there in his study and soak in the energy of his creativity. I wrote a big chunk of the first song standing right there. Later on, I crafted all the other songs around that one. It’s been a long time since someone put out a real concept album. “Red Headed Stranger” from Willie Nelson or “Aqualung” from Jethro Tull. There’s a beautiful heritage of true concept albums, but so few people put that kind of effort into their creation these days. I just wanted to honor that tradition.
The project focuses on the mental health struggles of our veterans, their families and communities. What can we do to better prepare our soldiers, along with their loved ones and neighbors, before they deploy?
The fact of the matter is I don’t think you could do anything to prepare someone for what they’re about to go through. I’ve counseled everyone from snipers to helicopter gunners, infantry soldiers, and even one woman who was gang-raped by the men in her company. It’s not the preparation from what I can tell. It’s the care and concern after the fact. Suicide victims leave clues and it’s like a laundry list. It happens nearly the same way every time and shows all the same signs. The important thing is recognizing those signs and knowing what to do when you see them.
The loudest cries come from the smallest voices. Read that as a child you saw warning signs before your dad committed suicide. How can educators be more involved in helping children express their concerns?
Honestly, I think that’s too much of a burden to ask any child to bear. You cannot even begin to imagine the anguish of watching your parent go through that. And as a child you are just so terrified of all the things going on around you that you don’t understand. Children shouldn’t have to learn the warning signs of suicide. They shouldn’t have to believe that their parents or family members are even capable of that kind of ultimate destruction.
The companion stories, in which the characters repent through their full confessions, add many layers to the songs. What made you decide that the songs’ lyrics alone could not tell the whole story?
That was pure happenstance. I have a friend who is an amazing novelist. He was listening to the songs I was writing for the project and he asked me if it would be okay to write a short story about the song “Hemingway.” When I read it, I just couldn’t quit crying. I asked him if we could collaborate and write short stories about all of the songs within the project to dig deeply enough to bring every character to life. Oddly enough, adding a literary element seemed to honor the namesake of the main character even more.
Have your daughters been involved in the project?
My daughters are monumentally supportive, but I don’t get them involved in this project because it’s a lot of weight to bear. The oldest is the founder and the director of a small chain of Montessori schools across Germany. The middle daughter is studying psychology at the University in San Antonio. The youngest is too young to have to deal with any of this. So, they all have plenty on their plates.
Recognizing the warning signs of suicide can be difficult, as recent celebrity suicides attest. Even harder is getting the resources to those in need in a timely fashion. In what ways will this project help this process?
As unfortunate as it may sound, the saving grace of suicide prevention is that the warning signs are so common and so predictable. The key is encouraging people to engage their courage. It’s difficult to ask a friend or family member if they’ve ever consider killing themselves. But that’s the exact question you have to ask. If you can find the courage to start the conversation, you can get people plugged in to such a wide variety of options for health and healing. You don’t have to be an expert. The experts are already out there. You just have to have the courage to wrap your arms around someone and tell them you see what’s going on, and that you see where this is headed and you’re not going to let them do something that will amplify their pain and spread it to everyone else around them for the rest of their lives.
Suicide is a strange thing. It ends the suffering of one person, but it spreads it to everyone else around them. And in my experience in talking people off the ledge so to speak, that’s a pretty good motivator to keep someone from taking their life. At Operation Hemingway events, I give that short talk and let people know that the minute you become worried that someone might be considering suicide, you have to find the courage in yourself to start that conversation.
What types of treatment have been most successful in helping veterans and, in turn, their families?
I can only give anecdotal evidence and observations because I’m not a trained professional. But in my experience, service dogs and music therapy seem to be downright magical. I can’t even explain to you what it is about a service dog that makes such a monumental difference for veterans. Those dogs are trained to sense the feelings of their handler and to get closer to them to relieve the stress and engage feelings of love and gratitude. It’s amazing. The music and songwriting therapy are equally powerful if not more so. When you have a veteran, who tells you the things that they have seen and the ways that they are struggling, when it has such a powerful grip on them, and you help them turn it into a song that sounds beautiful, it loses its power. Something so negative and hurtful and harmful becomes something pretty to appreciate and it’s no longer this big dark evil secret.
Now it’s something they are happy sharing. I have talked to several veterans who went to a mental health practitioner and were prescribed literally lunch bags full of pills. And it might take away the extremely negative feelings, but it also takes away a lot of the positive feelings, and they are left feeling like a zombie. They can’t even enjoy the happy parts of life that they looked forward to before. I’m sure there’s a place for all that when properly diagnosed and prescribed, but I’ve seen a lot of things work a lot better than medication.
How can people get involved in the Hemingway Project?
Right now, what I would really like people to do is to come to an event and see what it’s all about. You can follow us on Facebook or join the mailing list at our website to find out when we are coming to your town. We launched a national tour, and each stop was sponsored by a local business partner, which means all of the money we raised from ticket sales and donations stays right there in the community to help fund the organizations that are providing proactive help and healing for veterans, service dog organizations, emotional counselors, weekend retreats for hunting and fishing, music therapy, drug and rehab.
Everyone shares in the money we raise when they come to volunteer and give out information on the resources available within a community. That way we can encourage the attendees to learn the warning signs and stand up for someone if they are afraid that person might be struggling, and at the same time get them plugged into an understanding of what resources are available in their own city. That’s my mission over the next months.
A donation page is available and 20% of the proceeds from the “Hemingway” project will go to further the campaign’s mission.