- The Washington Times - Monday, May 25, 2009

FORWARD OPERATING BASE AIRBORNE, Afghanistan — At least a couple of times a week, Army Capt. Alfonso Johnson opens his laptop at his base in Afghanistan and plays a rap video - a clip with his young son singing about his fears that his father will die in combat.

“I’m 11 years old, already grown up, ‘cause my dad’s been gone so much,” Xavier chants into a microphone, his head bobbing to a hip-hop beat. Then the boy gets more blunt: “I’m feeling real sad now, I can’t lie, ‘cause there’s a chance that my dad might die.”

Rather than depressing him, Capt. Johnson says the song, called “Keep ‘em Safe,” makes him feel closer to his son. That is partly because of the memory of working with Xavier to make the song and video in the U.S.

But the lyrics also have a harsh honesty that lets 37-year-old Capt. Johnson feel the torrent of emotions that his son, now 13, is experiencing back in Fort Drum, N.Y.

On Memorial Day, military families confront the reality of soldier deaths directly. Capt. Johnson hopes their song can also help other children deal with their fears.

“Kids watch the news all the time, and they know that soldiers are dying in combat,” Capt. Johnson said. He has been stationed since January in a valley in Wardak, a mountainous province a short drive from Kabul where U.S. and Afghan forces have been fighting Taliban militants.

Capt. Johnson serves as a public affairs officer. Rather than stress that he does not go into combat each day or play down the risks, he told Xavier before his deployment that the Afghan mountains were dangerous and that he would have to carry a gun wherever he goes. He is scheduled to serve a one-year tour.

“Keep ‘em Safe” originated from a poem that Xavier wrote just before his father was scheduled to leave on a tour of Iraq about two years ago. A medical condition prevented Capt. Johnson from making the Iraq deployment, and he was reassigned to a group headed to Afghanistan.

Capt. Johnson, who keeps a synthesizer plugged into his computer and spends his free time composing hip-hop tracks, picked out a beat and some music and helped his son turn it into the song. He said he has seen how children Xavier’s age can have a rough time when they bottle up their worries about parents serving in war zones.

“Sometimes they might get in trouble in school just because their dad is gone and they miss him and the family is not quite running right,” he said, hoping that a song can help channel those feelings.

“It can help other kids express themselves, say things that they wouldn’t say normally,” Capt. Johnson said.

Psychologists say the separation brought on by military service is often hardest on teens, who have a much better sense of the risk their parents are facing than younger children.

“Adolescents can anticipate future events, so of course they have much more anxiety that the parent may die,” said Kathleen Roche, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and co-author of a study on how military deployment affects families.

Reached by phone in Fort Drum, Xavier said he felt the need to tell everyone what he and his friends who also have parents serving in Iraq and Afghanistan were feeling.

“I just wanted to express myself,” Xavier said, adding that he was nervous about the song at first, but began playing it to more and more people after close friends said they liked it.

The chorus is a plea. He sings, “Keep ‘em safe, keep ‘em safe, keep ‘em super-safe, keep ‘em safe till they get back home.”

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