Music Is My Memory

Updated: July 30, 2014


By J.E. McCollough

Thunderstruck” makes me remember the attack on Tikrit in 2003.

Here Without You” makes me think of Ramadi, in 2004.

Rolling in the Deep” makes me relive hot summer days in 2011 in Baghdad.

Memories of so many things have faded over the years. Too much shit I want to forget. Things I try to forget.

But a song can always bring me back to that exact state of mind. Is that a symptom of PTSD? Fuck it if it is. I can be sitting in a restaurant and hear a song and get tripped up. Anytime I hear “South Side” by Moby and Gwen Stefani I think about rolling out in a humvee in Ramadi.

The songs we know are the geography of our lives. There are songs that pull me back to high school. Pearl Jam’s album Ten. Anything by The Refreshments. Stone Temple Pilots. Alice in Chains. Social Distortion.

psy-ops truckThe Civil Affairs unit that was with us had a truck with a massive speaker on top during the Iraq invasion of 2003. When we were in convoy attacking Tikrit in mid-April, the CA guys somehow got authorization to start blasting rock anthems out of their loudspeaker. I don’t remember everything they played, it went on for at least an hour. I’m sure Guns’n Roses was in there, and probably Metallica. The Ride of the Valkyries was surely in there, how could it not? We quite literally had a soundtrack while we rolled north into Tikrit.

But the song I really remember hearing was by ACDC. Fucking ‘Thunderstruck.” I remember getting charged up like a teenager before a football game, even though I’d been awake almost constantly for three weeks, fighting, doing interrogations, driving the truck. Living mostly on ephedrine and caffeine. Sleep was for the dead, right? We’d seen plenty of the dead.

Thunderstruck” put my mind back in the war. Took me out of the fog. Made me smile as I drove to the fight, with my brothers beside me.

In 2004 I deployed while still in a relationship. Yah, don’t ever do that. We talked as much as we could, but she had no idea what I was going through. I was an interrogator. My first week in-country I was on a routine supply convoy to one of the nearby posts – called Combat Outposts – and the truck I was driving got hit with a roadside bomb.

My girlfriend sent me a mix-tape. Well, it was a CD, but I’m old enough to still call it a mix-tape. There were plenty of love songs on there, but the only one I remember was “Here Without You” by 3 Doors Down. Ahh… the leftovers of the 90s. Right?

She broke up with me a couple of months later and I broke the CD, so I’ll never know what else was on there. I do know I’ll never hear that song without thinking of her. And even though I’m over her now, there will always be a longing for what might have been.

What might have been.

That’s what our memories are, possibilities that never happened. And songs can always bring us back there. Before everything went wrong. Before we were haunted by the possibilities that never happened.

ipodMoving on is tough, especially when the songs you love, or can’t forget, remind you of where you were and all the things that happened, good and bad. Those heavy songs that psyched you up for a patrol into the ville where you knew the muj had IEDs and RPGs and AKs waiting for you.

Those stupid pop songs you listened to just because it was a girl’s voice, and that’s what you really needed at that point in your deployment.

Or the country songs that made you miss home so much it was like a pit in your stomach, but you still wanted to listen to, because, well, home.

All I can say is I’m not quite over all the songs that got me through some hard times. I’m sure I’ll never be completely over all them. So if you hear me listening to the Spice Girls or t.A.T.u., well, fuck you. Sometimes I need those voices, if only to drown everything else out.

So what songs did you listen to when ramping up for an Op? When trying desperately to come down from a war high?




  1. Jay

    July 30, 2014 at 11:02 am

    2005-2006 Between Baghdad and Samarra, Iraq. Anything by Blood for Blood when going out on a mission. That music is so hopeless it was perfect for getting you in the “fuck it, I’m already dead” type of mood that allowed you to function without worrying.

  2. victor

    July 31, 2014 at 1:59 am

    Headstrong by trapt
    Sound of da police by KRS One

  3. Jake

    August 1, 2014 at 9:21 am

    In Iraq, Avril Lavigne, Pantera, Bloodhound Gang, Disturbed, Metallica. Afghanistan, Pretty much the same stuff. I remember getting into a fire fight and scrambling to put on some Pantera but work called so I got stuck rocking the 50 to: The Lap Dance is so much Better When the Stripper is Crying by the Bloodhound Gang.

  4. Tim

    August 3, 2014 at 12:09 pm

    Interesting… I would speculate this music thing started around a campfire with the Spartans, or whenever the first conflict occurred. All it takes is the right song and your right there.

  5. Michael

    August 5, 2014 at 9:34 am

    I had one tape (that’s right, a TAPE) when we went over the berm into Iraq back in Desert Storm: Guns N’ Roses “Appetite for Destruction”.

    Welcome to the jungle baby: you’re gonna die

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