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Soldier's Song 

US fighters in Iraq document their experiences through hip-hop

When Sgt. Christopher Tomlinson arrived at the scene, he thought it would be a routine operation. A truck had flipped and rolled into a ravine of waist-high water in the Iraqi desert, but that wasn't so strange.

click to enlarge MCs featured on Voices from the Frontline (from left): CPL Yoshi, Mischelle, Q, Pyro, Miss Flame. - MARGEAUX BESTARD
  • Margeaux Bestard
  • MCs featured on Voices from the Frontline (from left): CPL Yoshi, Mischelle, Q, Pyro, Miss Flame.

"They were driving at night, and that country will sneak up on you," says Tomlinson.

It wasn't until he and his team leader hooked up a chain to the wrecked Humvee that Tomlinson realized something was terribly wrong.

"I saw a boot," he says. "It hit me: Oh, my God, there's somebody in there."

His gunner, a bodybuilder from Detroit, climbed into the water and grabbed the front of the Humvee to rescue the trapped soldier. The rest of the team followed, finally pulling him from the wreckage and carrying him out of the water. Tomlinson and the others performed CPR to revive the soldier. In the minutes that followed, the war in Iraq became very real.

"For the first time the mortality of the whole thing hit me. We're not immortal. This is real. This is a real human that I'm trying to save," he says.

It was a losing effort, but Tomlinson kept administering CPR until the other soldiers pulled him away. A medic arrived and told him to "let it go."

click to enlarge Platoon leader Cpl. Mike Watts, aka Pyro - MARGEAUX BESTARD

It wasn't that easy.

"I feel that I failed because I didn't do what I was supposed to do. It doesn't matter what happened, whose fault it was. I was staring a man in the face that I knew had a family," says Tomlinson. "One of his teammates was standing there. He's just got this distraught look on his face, and he was telling me about how this guy, the corporal that passed away, had just talked to his wife and it was his son's birthday yesterday."

When it was over, Tomlinson and his team drove the 15 minutes back to FOB Kalsu in silence, knowing their lives would never be the same.

"That silence hits you, and you don't know what you're supposed to do with that," he says. "Not many 20-year-olds are faced with that. When I came back, the only thing that I knew how to do was rap. That's all I had. Throw in a beat, turn the Xbox on, hit play and let it go. It was me and Deacon. We just went at it for hours, hours, just letting it go.

"If I didn't have that there, that would still be on my conscience today," he adds.

Tomlinson, aka Prophet, discusses the events of that night on "Some Make It, Some Don't," a part-freestyle, part-spoken-word piece on the hip-hop CD Voices from the Frontline, a 24-track collection performed by US soldiers who served, or are currently serving, in Iraq. The CD, released in April, is a musical diary of the experiences and emotions of more than a dozen US soldiers, expressed through songs and spoken-word "skits." Alternately joyous and tear jerking, angry and introspective, Voices from the Frontline explores many aspects of a soldier's life while avoiding the traps of rhetoric and sloganeering.

Most impressive is that the disc sidesteps politics altogether: It's neither pro-war nor anti-war. It just is, giving listeners a chance to hear straight from the soldiers themselves without the pollution of partisan politics. The songs on Voices from the Frontline are about the daily lives and struggles of the men and women serving in Iraq.

As Tomlinson says on the disc's opening track: "This ain't for a paycheck. This ain't for us to be known. This is for somebody to understand a soldier's life."

While Tomlinson was stationed in Iraq, Joel Spielman, president of the independent punk label Crosscheck Records, was stateside, trying to find active-duty soldiers to record a musical combat diary of US soldiers in Iraq.

"I had this vision that I hadn't contextualized yet where someone is listening to the CD and it's like you're listening to a documentary," says Spielman. "You're listening to people report to you live from the battlefield."

click to enlarge Sgt. Christopher Tomlinson, aka Prophet - MARSHALL ICE
  • Marshall Ice
  • Sgt. Christopher Tomlinson, aka Prophet

Through his search he met Frankie Mayo of Operation AC, a nonprofit that provides soldiers with non-combat essentials, such as boots, socks, glove kits and, as the name implies, air conditioners. It just so happened that Mayo had a son in Iraq who was an established freestyle MC who had won numerous military talent shows and rap battles.

Her son was Sgt. Tomlinson, 3rd Platoon, 300th Military Police Co.

"I told [Joel] about as strictly as I could that soldiers are down to work," says Tomlinson of his early conversations with Spielman. "When we're doing something we believe in, we do it to the fullest. But if you screw us over we're your worst nightmare. I said I don't want to do something about how much money we can stack up for the label or how much money is gonna be in my pocket. Having money is everybody's dream in the world, but this is much bigger than that. This is the opportunity to speak for 140,000 of my friends, brothers and sisters that are over there fighting right now."

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