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Samuel Dean speaks during an Operation Song meeting at the Chattanooga Lifestyle Center July 6, 2016.

Back in Iraq, they hide bombs inside trash, and trash is everywhere. On the roadside. In ditches. Outside homes.

So you never stop looking.

In Iraq, they also hide bombs inside dead dogs.

So you're on patrol, with one eye on the trash, and one eye on your platoon, and one eye on all the doors and open windows and rooftops, and now you've got to watch for dog carcasses, too. And it's not until you're right up on top of the dead mutt when you can see those little wires — the ignition wires — sticking out of the animal in some wicked insurgent-stitched incision in the dog's stomach or anus or mouth.

Dogs and trash. In Iraq, they can kill you. And your platoon.

So what happens when your deployment's done, and you're back home the U.S.?

And it's trash day?

Or the neighbor's dog is lying motionless in your driveway?

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It is an inverted experience: what is deadly in war is everyday here. What does your mind do when you come over the hill and there's a police officer, aiming his big black radar gun at you? You start to speed up and swerve, defensively, and the kids in the back seat cry, "What's wrong, Daddy? Why are you swerving?"

What happens in war does not stay in war.

"Your head won't come back home," said Ryan Taylor. "It stays in the war."

In 2010, Taylor returned home to Tennessee from five years in the U.S. Army, 82nd Airborne, to a new war. He had dreams so bad he'd drink to sleep and drinking so bad he was also crushing and snorting pills. Some nights, Taylor put a gun in his mouth. His mother was scared of him. His marriage was destroyed.

"I could conquer everything there, but not this," he said.

One night, he called the vet crisis hotline: 1-800-273-8255.

Said he wanted to die.

Ryan, the counselor asked, how many of your brothers and sisters that didn't make it back would trade with you now?

"Every one of them," he answered.

Something shifted. He began volunteering at a local shelter. Stopped drinking. Found God. A new girlfriend became his wife.

He also found Operation Song.

***

The U.S. is fighting the longest war in our history. With no end in sight.

When soldiers come home, the war there becomes a war here.

Roughly 20 U.S. vets kill themselves each day.

"Their brain has been rewired," said Chuck Ayars, a counselor and vet with the Chattanooga VA Clinic. "There's survivor guilt. There's a lot of unprocessed grief. It is very difficult for them to get the combat experience off their mind."

That's why Operation Song matters so much.

Wednesday mornings on Broad Street, a group of veterans — World War II to Vietnam to Iraq — sit around pushed-together tables on the third floor of Erlanger's Lifestyle Center.

Stories soon emerge. Stories they can't tell others. Nearby, two songwriters — Steve Dean and Don Goodman, both songwriting kings of Nashville — listen closely. They pull the words out of the stories and turn them into lyrics.

Then into a song. The process has power: vet-to-vet storytelling plus music equals deep, therapeutic, confessional relief.

"It's very cathartic," said Ayars.

Started in 2012, Operation Song has spread throughout Tennessee.

Yes, I've written about it before.

Yes, there are other topics — a new superintendent, courthouse statues, possible police chiefs — to address.

But as long as we continue to normalize war, we normalize vet suffering, which normalizes vet suicide.

And nothing changes.

There's a very real battlefield here. Not in Iraq. Not in Afghanistan.

But here.

Operation Song rushes onto that battlefield.

"You're on that battlefield dragging soldiers to safety," one vet told Goodman. "Stay on that battlefield, Don."

***

"Why are we so different when we come back? What is it about war?" Taylor asked. "God, I wish I knew the answer to that."

After the meeting with Operation Song, Taylor wanted his story turned into a hip-hop song.

The old vets moaned. Rap? Please.

Just listen, Taylor said.

Everybody's sayin' its gonna be alright

But they ain't gotta hear these people scream all night

All night I'm hearin' my buddy try and take another breath

All night I'm havin' flashbacks runnin' through my head

It's young men blowin' up, I've seen it with my eyes

I'm layin' on my knees at night and askin' Jesus why

I'm gettin' by thinkin' maybe I can take away the pain

By crushin' up the pills so I can take 'em to the brain

When the song ended, Taylor looked around the room.

Everyone was crying.

"It's the universal story," he said.

The incredible bond between soldiers. The incredible grief of death. Addiction. Confusion. Divorce. The sense of purgatory — caught between the war and home. This is the story of war.

How does the story end?

"It is a huge mountain. But it's worth the climb. And I will climb it with them," said Taylor.

Sometimes, music can win wars.

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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