NCO finds inspiration during Afghan deployment

Story by Pfc. Crystal Eldridge
13th SC(E) Public Affairs

Darkness had fallen over the Jalalabad, Afghanistan, airfield as the lone staff sergeant sat atop the shipping container which served as his office during the day. His face told the story of weeks of fatigue and his inner struggle to understand the situation he found himself in.

He held a guitar in his hands - a guitar left behind by Chinook helicopter crewmembers. He thought with mixed emotions of the Global War on Terrorism and the reception Soldiers have received upon returning home - and he began to sing:

"I'm the reason you speak without fear. These prison walls that bind me are the ones that keep you free."

Nearly a year after writing these words, Staff Sgt. Matthew Gerson, of the 49th Movement Control Battalion, 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary), has returned to the relative peace of Fort Hood. His song, eventually titled "American Dixie," follows him, earning third place in the inspirational category of the "Songs from the Soul of Service" competition out of Dallas, Texas.

Gerson reflects on the months leading up to this recognition.

"(Songwriting) is a means of conveyance," he said, "kind of a release.

"I wanted to express my patriotism with this song. I also wanted to emphasize the point that some people may not agree with what we are doing over there but they wouldn't have that freedom of speech and expression if it wasn't for soldiers fighting for those freedoms. That's what we're all fighting for. We're all fighting for a voice - freedom of speech, freedom of thought."

The young staff sergeant paused for a moment to think, then began to speak of people who speak for Soldiers but have never fought for their country.

"They could never express or feel what we feel as Soldiers because they've never been in our shoes," Gerson said. "They can't feel our pain."

"We're fighting for the freedoms so many people take for granted," he added.

Gerson, a native of Philadelphia, began writing songs six years ago, but only recently began to put a lot of effort into it.

In February 2005, while attending a Garth Brooks concert, Gerson received a burst of inspiration. Brooks noticed Gerson, who was in uniform, and gave the young Soldier his guitar while still onstage.

Gerson remembers this event as a catalyst, causing him to reignite his passion for music and songwriting.

He deployed to Afghanistan with the 628th Transportation Detachment and was assigned to the 14th Transportation Battalion stationed out of Italy. Music, he said, helped him deal with the pressures of deployment.

"It was a venting tool," Gerson said.

At times, Gerson would climb onto the shipping container to be alone and would stare out over the airfield. He would think about the next time he would be home, seeing his family and friends. And he would sing.

Quite often, people walking by would hear him singing and would stop to listen.

"It was a much-needed escape for them," Gerson said.

So his comrades became a sounding-board for his music, critiquing his sound and cheering him on. While home on leave, Gerson recorded several of his songs and titled the album "Written in the Dirt." Upon returning to Afghanistan, he shared the album with a senior non-commissioned officer.

Command Sgt. Maj. William Brown, of the 14th Trans, began playing music with Gerson during down-time in their office. Gerson would play the guitar and sing while Brown played the autoharp.

Brown urged Gerson to submit one of his songs to the Songs from the Soul of Service competition, but at first Gerson was hesitant, he said.

Over time, though, the command sergeant major persuaded the staff sergeant to enter the competition. Brown re-recorded the American Dixie track, adding autoharp to the song.

Gerson filled out entry forms and submitted the recorded song to the Dallas Song Writer's Association. Then he waited.

Before too long, Gerson received an email informing him he had been selected as one of the winners in the inspirational category. Upon returning to Fort Hood, he received a phone call confirming the news.

Gerson was then invited to perform at the open-mic session of the Songs concert in Killeen, Texas, on Friday.

"I feel privileged," Gerson said. "Every song I write is a story about my life or something I observed."

The recognition is not just acceptance of his music - it is acceptance of who he is.

"It is personal," said Gerson. "Every song is a part of me."