By Craig Morgan

I’ll never forget a trip I made to the Marine Corps Base up in Quantico, Virginia, back in April 2008.

We travelled there for a Jack Daniels/USO “Toast to the Troops” event where volunteers stuffed care packages for our men and women serving overseas. I had the honor of talking with some of our wounded warriors in the tent before taking the stage to perform. One of the young men I met had lost both his legs on the battlefield. During our conversation, he shared with me that one of the things that encouraged him throughout his difficult rehabilitation was one of my songs, “International Harvester.”

I was kind of taken aback because at first listen, it’s not exactly an emotional or particularly inspirational song. Then the young man revealed he had grown up on a farm. When he heard that song, all he could think about doing was getting his legs fixed so that when he got back to those fields, he could climb up on his own tractor and get back to work. For him, that song was home.

I felt my heart go straight to my throat as I was reminded of just how powerful a force music can be for our men and women in uniform.

Photo credit Army photo by Master Sgt. Kap Kim

Army veteran-turned-country star Craig Morgan has been on multiple USO tours.

Having served 10 years active duty in the Army as a 13 Fox Fire Support Specialist, I’ve experienced the way music can keep your spirits up when you’re serving your country far from home. I remember being in Panama in 1989 for Operation Just Cause. After the invasion was over and rebuilding efforts were under way, we were riding around and listening to an artist by the name Skip Ewing—he’s a writer here in Nashville now. I might have been in a foreign land surrounded by the sights, sounds and pressures of a full-scale military operation, but the moment I pressed play on that CD player, it felt like I was cruising a country road back in Tennessee. To this day I can still remember every single word to every song on Skip’s album. And I’ll never forget them.

When I served in South Korea, Sawyer Brown came to perform on a USO trip. Even through we were only miles away from the most heavily militarized border in the world, for those few hours the hundreds of soldiers watching in that audience—including me—felt like we were home.

As an artist, I’ve gone over to the Middle East to perform almost every year since 2001. I remember on that first trip, we were still sweeping up broken glass at the airport in Kandahar.

At one of those early shows, I came off the stage to find a gentleman there waiting for me. The fact that he had a full beard let me know that he was one of the soldiers at the tip of the spear, doing very dangerous things in very dangerous places. It turns out we had a mutual friend. The bearded soldier shared with me that every morning before our friend flew on a mission—and every evening when he got back—he would play a song I had written back in 2000 called “Paradise.”

Now as a writer, you are constantly incorporating things that are happening or have happened in the world around you. Having spent a large part of my life in the military, it continues to find its way into my music.

For the chorus of “Paradise” I wrote:

Once I was a soldier and not afraid to die Now I’m a little older and not afraid to cry Everyday I’m thankful just to be alive When you’ve been where I’ve been any kind of life … … is paradise.

It’s a song that touches on a subject that can be hard for those back on the home front to understand. Our men and women in uniform wake up every day knowing that it could be their last. Yet they put their lives on the line—and are proud and honored to do it—because they know they are fighting for the freedoms of the United States of America.

As my conversation continued with the bearded man, he grew quiet and then pointed off into the distance and singled out a rocky peak on the horizon. He let me know that our friend had lost his life in a helicopter crash on that very mountainside. And the morning he died, like every other morning, he had played my music. I was stunned. We both sat there and cried for minute before I had to get myself together and take the stage again.

I’m a guy who has been in public service my whole life. I like helping people. It’s a big part of who I am. To this day, when I return to the States after doing a trip to visit our troops, I go home wishing I could stay there and do more. And for a long time, I never felt like I was helping anyone as an artist. But after hearing that story in Kandahar, I realized as entertainers we have to go above and beyond to do whatever we can to take care of those men and women. There is no question they go above and beyond anything we can comprehend to take care of us.

The thought of my conversation in Kandahar popped into my mind again as I finished talking with the young man who couldn’t wait to get back to working the fields on his International Harvester. The power of the stories he and his fellow soldiers shared on that day reminded me that I might not be able to do a lot for these men and women, but I can sing songs and that can take them home.

I wrote another song that day. I scratched out the lyrics on a piece of notebook paper, taped them to mic stand and sang “Let Me Take You Home” for the first time that night. It’s a song that’s not a part of any album. I wanted it to be special for them. And I am honored and humbled to play it live for service men and women as long as long as they’ll let me.

–Craig Morgan served in the United States Army before coming home to Tennessee and launching a recording career. He has charted 17 times on the Billboard country charts and had seven singles make that chart’s Top Ten, including International Harvester and Almost Home.