Student veteran vows to never forget war
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U.S. Army sergeant details experience in military through music
Leo Dunson is not like the average American college student. While most teenagers are signing papers in the hopes of being admitted to the university or college of their choice after their senior year, Dunson was signing papers to join the U.S. Army straight out of high school.
At the age of 27, Dunson, a UNLV political science major, has seen things that some people will never see in their lifetime. He’s been to war, been shot at more times than he can remember and been faced with the challenge of reintegrating in his own country.
But while some veterans may want to erase their memories of war, Dunson fights to remember his approximate six-year service in the U.S. Army.
“One of the worst things I think they do in the Army is they tell you to forget everything that’s happened to us,” Dunson said. “They want you to erase the past six years — however long you were there — to forget it and just move on. For me, I came up with the whole idea of how about not forgetting it.”
Dunson was sent to Fort Benning in Georgia for basic training before being transferred to Alaska where his unit was stationed. Within a year, he was deployed to Iraq, first to Mosul and then to Baghdad.
“Basic training when I first joined was very, very challenging,” he said. “It was very physically and emotionally challenging.”
For 14 weeks, Dunson endured extensive, grueling exercises and drills to prepare him for the Army.
“Afterwards, I look back on it and obviously it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Dunson said. “It made me physically and mentally tough.”
But it wasn’t easy for the Oakland, Ca. native to be away from his family, according to his close friend Thomas Harris, 27, who served with the army veteran side by side for all six years.
While in Alaska, Harris noticed the effects the service was having on his friend, who was engaged at the time.
“When we got to Alaska, he started getting depressed,” Harris said. “He almost left. I told him, ‘Don’t leave me all by myself.’ From there, we were deployed to Iraq.”
The Iraq War began shortly after the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil on Sept. 11, 2001 under President George W. Bush’s administration.
It was in response to alleged intelligence reports that then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, and that then al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was seeking refuge in the country.
Although Dunson does not want to forget his military service, recalling the Iraq War was a struggle. There was a long moment of silence before he spoke.
“It was war. My job was to go fight for the war,” he said. “That’s what we went … there for. On the first day, we found that out real fast. The first day when I was there we got hit by an IED — an improvised explosive device.”
While in Iraq, Dunson was promoted to sergeant of the 1-17th infantry battalion, but he later found out that what he believed to be a year-long service in the war zone would change.
“I was in Iraq for a year then we got extended for another six months. I was in Mosul, Iraq for the first twelve months, then Baghdad,” he said. “We were one of the first units to be extended and we were extended on the day we were supposed to go home.”
Still, Dunson said his endless training in Fort Benning and in Alaska helped him feel ready for war.
He said that some of the combat training included being placed in mock cities similar to Iraqi villages and facing off with “people who look like they’re from Iraq.”
“I think going into the war, I felt like I was super prepared by the training and the period before the war at my unit in Alaska,” Dunson said. “I felt like I was as prepared as anybody could have been going into the war.”
Harrison, now a senior studying pre-law at Azusa Pacific University, said that when things became especially rough, they had each other for support.
“A lot of cases what ends up happening is about in a month or two, [the army goes] ahead and separates you,” he said. “I think it was nothing but a blessing. Having Leo there was great. I could tell him things that I know people back home wouldn’t understand and vice versa.”
War only made the two closer as their time in Iraq was extended.
“From the moment we signed up together, me and him were like brothers from another mother,” Harrison said. “He’s my best friend. I don’t even consider him a brother from another mother. He’s my brother.”
Still, coming back to the U.S. was a whole different battle for Dunson. It was adjusting back to civilian life: that was the real war.
“We were trained to go in, but we weren’t trained to come back,” Dunson said.
“When we came back one big shock was we expect things to be the same, but everything changed,” he said. “For example, you don’t expect your sister to graduate high school, but she has.”
War proved all too much for Dunson’s marriage and by the time he returned home, he was divorced.
“I was used to having a family and coming back and not having a family … that was a huge challenge just to come back to,” Dunson said.
The burden of war is one not easily discarded. Once a sergeant, always a sergeant.
“You have to carry everything that happened to you in Iraq now that you’re back in America,” Dunson said. “And [you carry] everything that happened not just to you, but to your team, your battalion, the guy that was right next to you. You got to carry all of it.”
A simple stroll on the sidewalk proved difficult for the army veteran, who said that for some time, he was always cautious about parked cars.
“Most Americans might think I’m crazy. They’ve never seen a car explode and they’ve never seen an actual car kill people just by being parked on the side,” Dunson said. “Once your reality is changed like that you can never go back.”
Even UNLV, which Dunson says has “laid out a red carpet treatment” for its military veterans, was a strange environment for him.
“Being in crowds — I’ve never been in crowds like that before school,” he said. “Last time I’d been in crowds, I was in Baghdad.”
Dunson said that oftentimes, he felt in adequate now that he was back in the U.S.
“I was a sergeant and then you come back and you’re kind of like a nobody,” he said. “It’s kind of a degrading feeling a little to go from having so much respect to basically not being respected at all for what you did.”
“I’m not Sergeant Dunson,” he said. “I’m just Leo Dunson.”
Counseling may have helped Dunson, but he refused to seek help because of the perception he grew to accept while in the Army.
He explained that counseling was offered during his service, but his platoon was always in earshot when asked if he needed someone to speak to.
“If I say yes, then I look like a weak link,” Dunson said. “Who wants to be the weak link in the infantry? So you say, ‘No, I’m fine.’”
Harrison said that Dunson had a tendency to be prideful, but that in most cases it served him well.
“Leo wants to figure something out for himself,” Harrison said. “He could work dependently, but independently is definitely his strength.”
Dunson started writing music in high school, but it was only in Iraq when his squad leader urged him to write about the infantry experience that he decided to pursue music as a career.
That night, Dunson wrote three songs: Soldier Music, My First Kill and If I Don’t Make It Home.
“I wrote a song called ‘My First Kill,’ which was about the first time I had to use my weapon for combat,” Dunson said.
“[If I Don’t Make It Home] was a letter to my family basically telling them what I want them to do if I don’t make it home,” he said. “It was really deep. I cried while I was making it and I cried when I was recording it too.”
Dunson’s music could be described as rap, but he and Harris both refer to it as “soldier music.”
“I felt like rap was the only genre I could do to explain what we did in Iraq,” Dunson said. “I needed something that was intense.”
Now on his sixth album, From Boots To Books, Dunson said he has developed a clearer perspective about his music that he credits to UNLV because he is learning about the war due to his major.
“I wanted to be able to have an educational perspective on [the war] too,” he said. “I can tell you what it’s like being a soldier in Iraq, but I didn’t know the politics of Iraq.”
For Dunson, music has become a part of his identity as is apparent through his stage name, Sgt. Dunson.
“I love doing it. I can’t stop doing it,” he said. “I kind of told myself I’ll follow my heart and follow my dreams.”
On Dec. 15, 2011, the Iraq War came to an end. It resulted in about 4,800 U.S. and coalition casualties, according to CNN.
As of Veteran’s Day last year, there were 22,658,000 U.S. veterans, according to ABC News.
Dunson hopes his sixth album encourages veterans like him to apply their military training to their life at home.
“All the training they gave us you can apply that to the civilian life,” he said. “Honesty, loyalty, determination. All those attributes you should carry on and bring that into being a civilian.”
Dunson said that the message he sends through his music is one of perseverance and determination that rings true in all stages and walks of life.
Perhaps he’s right as he seems to be walking proof of his very own philosophy: “Never give up and never accept defeat.”