ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Here's a grim statistic. Twenty-two U.S. military veterans kill themselves every day. That's more than 8,000 suicides each year. A singer-songwriter from Fort Worth, Texas, wants to point veterans toward a different path.
Using his own experiences, he has created an album and a book. His project is called "Operation Hemingway." NPR's Wade Goodwyn has his story.
WADE GOODWYN, BYLINE: Dan Johnson's relationship with suicide began when he was 10 years old. That year, 1987, Johnson's father, Terry Wayne Johnson, a Vietnam veteran, took his own life.
DAN JOHNSON: My dad and I were best friends. We went absolutely everywhere together right up until the day that he died.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONE GUNMAN'S LAMENT")
JOHNSON: (Singing) Surrounded by ghosts of the lives he had claimed, safer than were nobody there.
GOODWYN: In families, suicide can beget suicide. Fast-forward 25 years...
JOHNSON: There was a particular moment in life when I had broken up the marriage of a dear friend of mine. He didn't deserve that, and she didn't deserve that. And their son didn't deserve that.
GOODWYN: So in 2012, on a highway outside of Amarillo, Dan Johnson decided to follow in his father's footsteps.
JOHNSON: I had the feeling I don't want to take up space on this earth anymore. This world would be a much better place if I weren't in it.
GOODWYN: Johnson hit the gas. His plan was to smash into the first bridge he came to so his children would get his life insurance. But for mile after mile, there was only empty panhandle.
JOHNSON: And there was nothing to run into. So I had some time to think. I began thinking about my dad and thinking about, I bet he thought he was doing me a favor. And I'm about to do the exact same thing to my own kids.
GOODWYN: Johnson pulled off to the side of the road, shaking. After an hour, he gathered himself and, sitting in the middle of vacant West Texas, wrote a song of regret about a cowboy who'd hurt everyone he'd known.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LONE GUNMAN'S LAMENT")
JOHNSON: (Singing) Well, he opened his eyes and saw the tears on his shirt, where his heart would have been had he won. And he'd filled up the void that had always been there with remorse for the things that he'd done.
GOODWYN: Johnson eventually wrote music and a collection of fictional stories with novelist Travis Irwin. Johnson calls the project "Operation Hemingway," after the author who experienced the carnage of the Spanish Civil War and who, at the age of 61, killed himself. The concept came to Johnson during a tour of Hemingway's home in Key West.
JOHNSON: He got to the end of his life, and he couldn't go have any more adventures. And I was transported back to the moment when my dad took himself out of the world. And I said he took the Hemingway out.
GOODWYN: Johnson let the house tour continue without him. Alone in Hemingway's study, he took out a pen and wrote the title song name for the writer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEMINGWAY")
JOHNSON: (Singing) So, Hemingway, tell us a tale of some great adventure, of champions or fishermen or girls that put wind in men's sails. Take us away. Hey, Hemingway.
GOODWYN: Dan Johnson eventually composed and recorded five songs. The stories and the songs are expanded in the book and include an imaginative cast of characters, from a grievously wounded veteran seeking salvation in Percocet and bourbon, to an aging gun smuggler taking one last shot at love.
"The Devil's Child" is a story made for our time. In the book, it begins, (reading) Billy was a half-breed, which wasn't supposed to matter, not these days, but it did.
But it's Johnson's frank assessment of veteran suicide and the title track that's drawn the attention of veterans' organizations.
JOHNSON: I learned through tragedy that the only way to honor those that came before us and those that are going to come after us is to not only live, but live well.
GOODWYN: Jacob Schick is the CEO of 22Kill. The nonprofit's name is derived from the number of American veterans who kill themselves every day. Like the soldier in Dan Johnson's narrative, Schick lost his right leg, broke all his ribs and suffered a traumatic brain injury during combat operations in Iraq in 2004. It was Schick who helped Johnson sharpen his focus to the issue of veteran suicide.
JACOB SCHICK: We're after acceptance, acceptance that it's OK to not be OK. Everything you've ever wanted is on the other side of your fear. You just have to weather the storm.
The brand-new CD is "Hemingway." Everybody, Dan Johnson.
GOODWYN: Dan Johnson is taking his project on the road across the country, playing the material to audiences who reflected back afterward, sometimes with shaky voices.
MICHAEL SPRAGUE: I was going to drink a bottle of really good whiskey, take a handful of pain pills, draw a hot bath.
GOODWYN: Army veteran Michael Sprague served in Iraq.
SPRAGUE: There's still times I want to do it, you know? But it's quitting. So you can't. You can't give up. You can't let the other guy win.
JOHNSON: Right on.
GOODWYN: In some ways, Dan Johnson is trying to do for others what he could not do for his own father.
JOHNSON: He called me down from my room, and he said, there's a couple of things that I want to give you. And he gave me his most prized possession, which is a 1956 Gibson Les Paul Custom. It's a nearly priceless guitar that he'd had his entire life. At the time, I remember thinking, how could this have happened?
GOODWYN: Johnson says "Operation Hemingway" is a cry from his heart to try to stem the tide of veteran suicide. Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLOOM")
JOHNSON: (Singing) You'll stay in my home.
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