Music part of mission to end veteran suicides

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

After nearly losing his life during a military operation in Afghanistan in 2004, Stephan Cochran didn’t know if he’d ever walk again, let alone resume a promising career in country music.

He faced depression and suicidal thoughts after his back was broken and legs immobilized as a result of being tossed from a military convoy vehicle. But after putting a shotgun to his face in 2009, he changed his mind and turned a corner.

He would gain use of his legs after surgeries, but he still struggled. He says three things kept him from taking his own life: God, his Lab puppy clamoring for attention and the fact that his shotgun barrel was too long.

He now uses his story and music to honor veterans who ended their lives to escape the pain. His goal: to keep others from taking that fatal step.

On Memorial Day, Cochran, an established country music singer and songwriter based in Nashville, Tennessee, who has spent many summers in Waterford Township, will serve as grand marshal of Dearborn’s annual parade.

The parade is one of the oldest continual ceremonies in the state, running for 92 years. It features 80 veteran and community groups and 10 school bands.

Fallen soldiers honored at Holly Memorial Day ceremony

While tributes to those who perished in wars to protect America will be held all over Metro Detroit, the city and the Dearborn Allied War Veterans Council will emphasize the country’s veterans who have committed suicide. The movement to bring awareness to these deaths is called “22-A-Day,” which refers to the estimated number of veterans who take their own lives across the country.

Cochran, a Marine veteran who joined in the days following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and served in Iraq and Afghanistan, understands that pain all too well. At one point, he was on 13 medications after procedures to repair his back — the most successful procedure was kyphoplasty, an experimental surgery that injects bone cement through a tiny incision to repair a fractured vertebra.

“I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. My brain felt like it was convulsing every day,” the 36-year-old recalled. “And I was tired of living like this. As blessed as I have been, I was exhausted. I didn’t sleep most nights because I was scared to go to sleep.”

His music is often geared toward the veterans and how their lives have suffered due to post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and suicidal thoughts. He has written songs about fallen comrades and his own brush with suicide. And he gives credit to his belief in God for seeing a brighter future for himself.

“I didn’t go over there and lose my buddies so that I can come home and leave this (his own suicide) for the rest of them,” Cochran said. “At that point, I already had hits on the radio. The people who were my fans already knew what I had done in combat. What’s this going to say to them? How many people are barely holding on because of the message that I’m giving them?”

Cochran and two other country music artists held a concert Saturday at the Ford Community & Performing Arts Center in Dearborn to bring in donations for causes to prevent veteran suicides.

Gary Tanner, who heads the Michigan Wounded and Returning Warrior Program that will receive proceeds from the concert, said some veterans end up isolating themselves, and more needs to be done to help them.

“Especially on Memorial Day and holidays like this, a lot of that is brought to the forefront of their minds, and it exacerbates the symptoms and the things that they are dealing with,” Tanner said.

“Those of us that have lost friends and even close friends to the suicide issue, it’s a very solemn time for us. And sometimes they’d rather hide away than come out and do anything. It’s just too hard to deal with sometimes. So it’s good to raise that awareness to the broader community.”

Sean Green, commander of the Dearborn Allied War Veterans, who suggested Cochran as grand marshal for Dearborn’s parade, said he’s glad the emphasis is on honoring those who committed suicide and helping those still living and tempted by their demons.

“The biggest problem that these young men and women are dealing with is the fact that they are put on this pedestal, they are called heroes all the time, they get over there and they are having to look out for each other, and they come home and they don’t know how to ask for help,” Green said.

Green said the belief of being “perceived as weak” pervades the thinking of many veterans.

“Because of this, they try to do it alone,” he said. Now, there are efforts to partner older veterans with younger ones to offer help and guidance, he said.

For Cochran, his destiny, it seemed, was not to be a soldier, even though he had relatives who served, including his father. His dream was to be a country music singer “my whole life.” He was the lacrosse captain of Western Kentucky University and had just signed a developmental deal with Epic Records when 9/11 happened.

“Joining the Marine Corps and fighting for this country was the last thing on my to-do list, the farthest thing from the direction my life was going,” Cochran said. “And then I woke up on 9/11. As much as the lineage of music was driven into me, so was the patriotism. So if this country needs you, stand up and fight for that right.”

Even after coming through the surgeries and regaining use of his legs, Cochran still struggled. But he hopes his story will inspire others to get help.

“It’s hard to stand up and say, there’s some stuff going on inside of me that I don’t have control over,” Cochran said.

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Dearborn’s 92nd Memorial Day Parade

Where: The parade is traveling in the opposite direction this year, beginning at Michigan and Maple and traveling west on Michigan to end at Henry Ford Centennial Library

When: 10 a.m. Monday but Michigan Avenue will be closed starting at 8 a.m.