- The Washington Times - Monday, July 16, 2007

Marine Sgt. Sugarray Henry reached for a cigarette as his platoon returned to its base after a nighttime sweep for land mines and explosives in Hit, Iraq. Gunfire, sudden and furious and aimed square at his convoy, disturbed the still darkness.

It pierced his military truck, shot out a couple of his tires, punctured holes in the side mirror. A driver up ahead was fatally shot, his vehicle spilling into a muddy ditch. Sgt. Henry, positioned in the second truck from the back, grabbed his M-16 rifle and let loose.

“It was just gunfire coming from everywhere, and all we could do was just shoot — shoot back,” Sgt. Henry recalled.

That harrowing night in early 2005 would come to mind months later when, from the safety of a military barracks in Hawaii, Sgt. Henry put his thoughts onto paper. He wrote about looking for insurgents on a “dark, late night,” about the bullets that whizzed by his head, about an urgent voice on the radio relaying news that a comrade was killed, shot in the head.

He reflected, too, how he almost cried when he saw a dead Marine from his squad.

A fellow member of the platoon wrote a verse about a friendly fire incident the two had survived. They mixed in background sound effects of explosions and machine-gun fire and recorded a hip-hop song they called “Combat Zone.”

“We in a combat zone/The only thing we can think about is making it home/They keep on extending us/We done been here too long/Wake up one day and then the next day you gone.”

The song is included on the first compact disc of a new record label reserved for past and present members of the military.

Sean Gilfillan and Sidney DeMello, Rhode Island natives behind To The Fallen Records, based in Newport, were eager to give musically inclined troops a vehicle for expression — and expose civilians back home to the realities of military life.

The 14 hip-hop tracks on the CD mix sobering reflections on war with thumping rap beats and catchy choruses. Rock and country songs will step forward on future releases.

“We want it to appeal to everyone, whatever your beliefs are,” Mr. DeMello said.

For Sgt. Henry, 23, writing “Combat Zone” with Tendaji Akil, a fellow member of Dirty Boi Vets, was a “stress reliever,” an opportunity to recount in unfiltered fashion the violence of war.

Sgt. Henry is a native of Mobile, Ala., where he had lived with his mother and elder brother. His mother gave him two options after high school: college or the military.

When he shipped out, he said, his superiors told the troops, unflinchingly, what to expect in the combat zone.

“ ’Everybody’s not going to make it back,” ” Sgt. Henry recalled being told. “ ’Some people gonna die, some people gonna get hurt.’ They told us all that in the beginning.”

For the longtime rap fan, formulating his thoughts into hip-hop lyrics was a natural outlet.

“Basically, I was just trying to tell a story that happened,” said Sgt. Henry, a member of a mortar platoon in 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, 3rd Marine Division, based at Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Kaneohe Bay. “I was trying to paint a picture of what it was like.”

That is one of the label’s primary goals.

“Our message is, if you want to know about it listen to the CD, listen to the different opinions of the guys and girls that are actually involved directly there,” Mr. Gilfillan said. “And gauge what they have to say and then form your own opinions.”

The venture keeps Mr. Gilfillan, 28, rooted in the military, which has been part of his family for generations. It also serves as a catharsis: The former Army captain spent 15 months in Iraq, and though he still talks with pride about his service, he returned home with a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder after having lost seven close Army buddies.

The names of his slain friends are tattooed across his back, inscribed with the words “To The Fallen” and a picture of a helmet that hangs atop a rifle standing upright inside combat boots — a symbol for a fallen warrior.

Mr. Gilfillan and Mr. DeMello, 31, solicit submissions from current and former military members, regardless of their political views or branch of service. They work with a professional sound engineer to ferret out the best songs.

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