Artist Gives Music, Time to Troops

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Dec. 12, 2007 - Johnny Ondrasik turns 8 years old this Christmas Eve, but he isn't asking for any presents on his birthday -- at least not for himself.

"Daddy, can I have my friends donate money ... for the Fisher House?" he instead asked his father. The Fisher House is a charity that provides wounded warrior family members free housing near military hospitals.

"I'm like, 'You get it,'" a beaming elder John Ondrasik said in an interview in Alexandria, Va., yesterday. "You hear it a million times, and you tell your kids that if you give, you get. But it's true."

Ondrasik, the singer-songwriter who goes by the stage name Five for Fighting, is in Washington to sing to members of Congress and to help promote his latest CD project. But the Grammy-nominated, platinum-selling artist isn't actually selling anything. He is giving it away.

When finished, the musician will give away some 200,000 free CDs for U.S. troops, compliments of Ondrasik and some 13 superstar friends who partnered to make a "thank you" music disc for servicemembers. The contributing artists include Billy Joel, the Goo Goo Dolls, Brooks and Dunn, Melissa Ethridge and even actor Gary Sinise's Lt. Dan Band.

The CD will be distributed in Iraq and Afghanistan and can be downloaded now at the Army and Air Force Exchange Service's Web site. Officials expect as many as 1.5 million downloads.

It's a deal that record industry officials have heralded as "historic," with such top artists basically giving away copies of their most popular songs. Ondrasik offered up Five for Fighting's "100 Years" from his platinum-selling album, "The Battle for Everything."

For Ondrasik, it's the least he can do, he said.

"A lot of other people have given a hell of a lot more than I have. And they're examples to me," he said.

He compared what he's doing to what the troops do, and said the troops do much more. "Someone said the other day, 'Wow, you take two weeks out of your life and you leave your family and you go play these shows for these troops. Wow, you're really cool,'" he said. "Some of these (troops) spend ... years in (the war zone). I take two weeks out of my life to go sing a song. That's not cool. What they do is cool. What they do is important."

While growing up in suburbia Los Angeles, Ondrasik said, he never really gave a lot of thought to military service or those who served. None of his family served. His closest kin serving was one "kind of" second cousin, he said. None of his friends joined the military after graduating from high school, he said, and while his family had a "healthy respect" for service, it was foreign to his way of life.

Then came the Gulf War in 1990.

"That kind of shook me. And I wrote a bunch of songs about that, because as an adult I had not had that experience," Ondrasik said. "It's different when you are glued to CNN for three weeks watching the first Gulf War. From then on, I was invested and not only just in our troops but in our country and in our values.

"You don't necessarily appreciate the policeman until somebody's trying to rob you. I think it's just natural in our culture. We can become complacent. We can become apathetic. That's one of the luxuries of democracy," Ondrasik said.

"Until all of the sudden you are afraid to go the mailbox because of anthrax," he continued. "Or you are afraid to get on an airplane, or you're afraid to go into a mall, and then all of the sudden, 'Wow, I'm sure glad we have our soldiers. I'm sure glad someone's ready to take a bullet for me,'" he said.

But while the imagery of war and politics filtered into some of his songs, Ondrasik had no one-on-one contact with servicemembers until after Sept. 11, 2001. Since then, he has played USO concerts for troops, met with families and talked to veterans. He's also visited wounded servicemembers at Walter Reed Army medical Center here and at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

The stories have filtered into his music, such as the song "Two Lights," which portrays the mixed emotions of a Vietnam veteran watching his son leave for war in Iraq.

In his album released last year, Ondrasik wrote in the song "Freedom Never Cries" that "I never loved a soldier until there was a war." In his travels, he has had the chance to lunch with families, drink beers with troops and listen to their stories.

"Some tear your heart out, some make you proud, some make you laugh," he said.

Most poignant was playing for about 100 Army National Guardsmen stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, he said. Singing in a little bar called "Club Survivor," Ondrasik said he could see the American flag outside lit by the moon. He could also see the fence that marked freedom's edge. He sang "Freedom Never Cries."

"Singing for those people, in that environment with that song, was something I'll never forget," the artist said. "When you see a fence that on the other side freedom does not exist; when you meet the families who have lost loved ones; when you meet the injured troops at Walter Reed or Bethesda, it becomes personal and real. It's not writing from afar any more."

Ondrasik said he has a song titled "4th of July in Gitmo" on his next album, not yet released.

For Ondrasik, singing for the troops and putting together the CD project is simply his contribution to supporting the troops.

"I can't pick up an M-16 and go to Baghdad, but I can write a song, or I can shine the light on the realities some of the military face, or I can go do a concert. So for me, it's what can I do," he said.

"Troops pay the ultimate price for our freedom and rights, and there is obligation to say thanks and recognize troops, families and veterans," Ondrasik said.

Ondrasik, a father of two, said his son loves to play army.

When asked how he would react if his son wanted to join the military, Ondrasik responded with the mixed emotions of most fathers.

"As a father, you don't want to put your son's life at risk. So the inclination is, 'Don't join the Army ... don't join the military. I don't want to lose you,'" he said. "At the same time, as an American, and one who believes in our values, if his passion leads him to a military career, I couldn't be more proud of him."

As for his daughter, Olivia, age 6, "She's hard-core. I wouldn't want to serve under her. She's a terror, and she would do just fine," the musician said and laughed.

This week, Ondrasik will return home to finish his album, enjoy a family Christmas and contemplate a second CD for the troops, maybe a comedy version, he said. He also will continue to spotlight servicemembers' efforts.

"We put athletes and celebrities on a pedestal and on the front with all the headlines. And sometimes I think we get it backwards," he said. "Whatever we can do to put the spotlight on those who deserve it is probably the right thing to do."

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