To many civilians, the moment when soldiers come home from battle is greeted with celebration and relief. We are thankful that our loved ones are still alive and well, safe and at home, but oftentimes this return is the beginning of a whole new challenging and evolving time for veterans. This is often a very raw and vulnerable side of a person’s life to be shared, but Jaymes Poling has been doing just that: telling his story, on stage in front of audiences for about a year now. Modern Warrior, the music-meets-spoken-word project co-created with jazz musician Dominick Farinacci, is his full time job now.
A study published in 2015 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reported that around 50,000 U.S. veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in the past 13 years were diagnosed with PTSD.
After joining the U.S. military in 2005 at age 17, Poling served three deployments between 2007 and 2012 in Afghanistan. During his first year, he already was engaging in close-range fighting, but came out of it without losing anyone close to him.
“I did have a lot of friends shot at; I remember one mission there were like six guys who were shot at, and everybody was okay,” Poling explains. “So you kind of felt sort of invincible, like coming out of this.”
It was only after his second deployment that he started feeling different after he lost a friend during a mission. “I spent time with his family and it kind of changed my perspective a little bit in the sense that, you know, I began to see the effects of it,” he says.
One of these effects he noticed was when he had a physical reaction after hearing a helicopter back at home. “It pulled me back immediately,” he explains. After this experience, he started exploring the emotions in the only way he knew how—just feeling them over and over again until he felt the reaction again.
“I saw it as emotionally diluting myself,” Poling reflects. “But then what happened to the point where I didn’t have that reaction anymore, I didn’t really feel anything.”
Even after officially leaving the military in 2012, Poling recalls feeling like he still needed to put himself in dangerous situations, to try and bring an environment that he was used to after the military.
“When I got out, I just had to actively work at those things,” Poling says. “Sometimes it was as simple as a decision.”
In 2015, Dominick Farinacci was finishing up his album Short Stories in Cleveland and wanted to connect with an Army veteran to get a better idea for one of the songs. “I wanted to meet someone who had this experience, because I knew nothing about it,” Farinacci says.
At the time, Poling was starting classes at Cuyahoga Community College, so Farinacci reached out to him through Veterans Services on campus. They ended up talking for about six hours as Poling explained to Farinacci his frustrations with how veterans are viewed in extremes.
“They were either depicted as a hero or as damaged, or as a liability,” Poling explains. “And what you see in the media never really provided much room for the grey area and the people in between.”
Eventually the idea for Modern Warrior came to fruition. Even the title they eventually chose is meant to describes any person, veteran or not, who is trying to overcome adversity and challenges in life. “It just gets right to the core of the human experience and we’re very specific about that,” Farinacci says.
Through an autobiographical presentation of Poling’s story and a combination of different styles and genres of music curated by Farinacci, a truly indescribable project began to form to help reflect an equally indescribable experience. “I interpret people’s stories through my music, because that’s what I’m used to doing, that’s my own language,” Farinacci says. “So in hearing his story back and forth, well what kind of music underscore is appropriate to amplify this story?”
The show officially had its debut Jan. 13 and 14 of 2017 at the Sheen Center in New York City and later went on tour to a number of cities and mental health conferences, such as the National Council for Behavioral Health Convention in D.C.
For Poling, the show has been a therapeutic experience for him personally, when Dominick and the musicians were essentially creating a soundtrack for his memories. Throughout the process he learned to ask certain questions about his experiences. “Is it me, is it the way I internalize that, is it the way I share this, and I would have to go back and re-evaluate it,” Poling says.
Poling’s and Farinacci’s goals for the show also included making sure it can be relatable to anyone, despite their background, political affiliation, or opinions about patriotism for their country. “One thing that we try to do in writing the show, is making sure that we’re including as many people as possible,” Poling says. Although some of us might not completely be able to put ourselves in the shoes of certain people, the two hope to use the show as a way to highlight the challenges that everyone go through as a way to create common connections.
“Our national identity is so mixed and pulls from so many cultures that we have the opportunity to be this amazing blend of whatever we want to be and we continue to evolve,” Poling says. “I think through that evolution, we’ll continue to redefine patriotism and what it’s like to be an American.”