As Staff Sgt. Terrance Staves dodged bullets recovering a burned-out Humvee in Baghdad’s Sadr City, he heard a rocket-powered grenade zooming toward him. All he could do was hold his breath, he recalled, when it crashed into the armored Bradley vehicle sitting just feet in front of him.
Back at camp, Staves went to his makeshift recording booth to vent his anger and fear by spitting rap lyrics. Some of those lyrics were used on “Live From Iraq,” an album he and a few other Fort Hood soldiers wrote, recorded and produced while on a one-year deployment in Iraq.
On the 15-track album, soldiers voice frustration at what they call shabby equipment and the lack of support they feel from the American public. The album vigorously defends soldiers charged with crimes for actions committed during the conflict.
“I was outside the gate a lot and had a lot of stuff happen to me,” said Staves, 26, of Houston. “So for me to … be able to get in the booth and let all my anger out was wonderful. Because sometimes you can’t let all your anger out there because you might endanger yourself, your brothers or do something you’re not supposed to do. It was a beautiful outlet.”
The group, led by Sgt. Neal “Big Neal” Saunders, includes Sgt. Edward “Greg-O” Gregory, Staves, Spc. Michael “Paperboi” Davis, Sgt. Ronin Clay and Spc. Michael Thomas.
They were deployed with Taskforce 112 of the 1st Calvary Division at Fort Hood on March 12, 2004, and returned exactly one year later.
Within two weeks, the CD was mastered and the group had 2,000 copies made. The group has sold about 1,000 copies through its Web site and a regional music store chain has agreed to sell it.
Saunders, who spent nearly $35,000 on the project, said the soldiers don’t have a group name and didn’t include their names or pictures on the CD because they wanted to focus on their comrades, both dead and alive.
The album opens with “The Deployment,” a heartbreaking tale of the moments before they left and their emotions as they approached Iraq. Several soldiers’ wives cried when they heard the song, Saunders said.
“You would have really thought the world was coming to an end and for some of us it was,” Saunders says in the song. “You were literally prying your loved ones off of you so you could make it out the door to the bus. I’ve never seen so much emotion in one place before.”
Another track, “Holdin’ My Breath,” discusses how they conceal the horrors of war from their families and a song called “Dirty” is about a soldier dealing with a cheating spouse back home.
“`Live from Iraq’ is the writing on the wall,” said Davis, 21, of Lanett, Ala., “It’s that magnifying glass to that huge picture that’s been painted since this whole thing has begun. It’s the attention to detail that has been overlooked in everyday life.”
Saunders, from Richmond, Va., said the soldiers often found inspiration for their music during missions. But some of the songs recorded immediately after battle had to be redone after the men had cooled down.
“A lot of times the first draft might not have been what you really wanted to say,” he said. “You may come off stupid because you didn’t have your thoughts together and you’re just kind of rambling. So we would take time to think because we didn’t want to put out a stupid album.”
The album’s title track recounts a particularly bloody day last April when eight of their fellow soldiers were killed in a fierce gunbattle:
“This here is blood of soldiers of which the streets are paved … And there is no reimbursement for the price that we pay.”
Most of the rapping soldiers didn’t know each other before they went to Iraq, but all say they had an interest in music.
Saunders planned to put his musical aspirations on hold while he was deployed, but soon after arriving at Camp War Eagle near the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, he came up with the idea for the album.
“I’d been trying to find my angle my whole life as an artist,” he said. “If I can’t take this opportunity and have anything to say about probably the most influential year of my life then I could never really consider myself to be an artist.”
Many soldiers answered his call for participants, but most lost interest when they heard what he had in mind.
“Everybody wanted to do their own thing,” Saunders said. “And when I gave them the guidance and said, `This isn’t gonna be about 23-inch rims when you’re over here riding a Humvee … they didn’t like it.”
Staves said some people actually laughed at the group and told them no one would buy a rap album about Iraq.
“I told them it’s not about the money. It’s about the music,” he said.
Thomas initially resisted the idea too, but relented when he realized how serious they were about the project.
But first they had to get professional recording equipment to Iraq a task that took almost nine months. Saunders said he contacted dozens of companies before he found one willing to ship the equipment.
His bunkmates gave up space for the improvised studio. Soundproof foam for the room was too expensive, so the crew used exercise mats adorned with flowers and foam padding used for shipping packages.
Saunders, whose job in Iraq was to provide personal security for the commander, said the soldiers’ superiors knew about their project but underestimated the seriousness of the recordings.
“They just thought it was going to be a regular rap album,” he said. “But it wasn’t. I think if they would have known the type of CD I was putting out they wouldn’t have let it come out.”