GLENDALE, Calif. -- Don't call Iraq War vet Jason Moon a hero. Don't phone him on Memorial Day or July 4th or Veterans Day to say thank you.
Instead, just listen as he strums his guitar and sings about the "things I've seen I won't forget," about the sacrifices, emotional and physical, that a warrior must bear.
It can get raw, as it did one evening in a backyard in suburban Los Angeles, a recent stop on a concert tour that has taken him all over the country.
"All this welcome home, good job, we're-so-proud-of-you bull---- is wearing thin," he said, half-singing, half-speaking, as firelight flickered on his audience's faces.
There was a brief pause, then laughter – a moment of understanding shared veteran to veteran.
To some of us, words like those – and a rejection of hero status – might sound ungrateful, even disrespectful. We live, after all, in an era when "supporting the troops" has practically become a requirement to prove one's patriotism. We put yellow ribbons on trees and magnets and stickers on our cars, or at least we used to. We talk about heroes and bravery.
Americans haven't always embraced their war veterans, so we've been determined to get it right this time.
There is, however, a sense among many of today's vets, and those who deal with them, that we often haven't done so, despite the best intentions.
"When I was in Vietnam, nobody welcomed anybody home – or they spit on you, or worse. Now everybody has a parade, or welcomes you. But it loses the impact," says Larry Ashley, a Vietnam veteran who's now a professor specializing in combat trauma at the University of Nevada Las Vegas.
"It's like a pendulum. It's like we're overcompensating for a guilty conscience."
As some see it, calling them heroes has become the easy way out. "We want to tidy it up. We want to put it into a larger narrative of what we've achieved on the battlefield," says Brian Matthews Jordan, a doctoral candidate in the history department at Yale University, who has studied the treatment of Civil War veterans. "We often make veterans the objects rather than the subjects of their homecoming."
We embrace the notion of the hero, he says, but know little about the human beings behind that facade, or their struggles.
Moon knows this all too well. A combat engineer who served in Iraq on multiple tours of duty, he came home to his native Wisconsin, hoping to fit back into life, but had a difficult time of it.
He would hear the kinds of questions most veterans often face – "Did you see any action?" "How many people did you kill?" – but not the ones most want to answer.
And then there's the assertion that veterans are heroes. No, Moon and other veterans try to tell people, they are not heroes. To them, a hero is someone who has gone above and beyond the call of duty. As they see it, they simply did what was asked of them, though often at personal cost. Others have survivor's guilt.
All of it widens the disconnect between veteran and civilian.
"Because we call them all heroes," Jordan says, "we think they don't need our help or our understanding because they can come back and negotiate the challenges of daily life just as they negotiated the challenges on the battlefield."
That translates to an underlying feeling that heroes – or those perceived to be them – aren't supposed to talk about the hard stuff.
So homecomings are still followed by confusion, fear, and anger – often on both sides – as too many newly arrived veterans struggle with unemployment, mental health issues and homelessness, just as many of their predecessors have.
"Many people gave up their marriages, relationships, jobs, lives, limbs, friends to go fight in defense of their community," Moon says. "And then they come back and they have to isolate from their community because the community doesn't know how to act around veterans, because they weren't aware of the consequences of war."
Suffering from what would later be diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, Moon, too, began to withdraw after he returned. He stopped writing the music that had been so much a part of his life since he was a teenager, and that had helped him cope when he was in Iraq.
Eventually, in 2008, he tried to kill himself – an attempt that would finally lead him to the help he needed.
Even in his darkest hour, the woman who would become his wife stuck by him. "You have a good heart," she told him, though he wasn't sure he believed it at the time.
Then came requests to play music and to start writing again.
"Someone told me to do it, so I did. That's how I perceived it," says Moon, now 37. "That's what a good soldier does."
It felt good to play again, like a salve on old wounds. He finished one song he'd started when he was in Iraq called "Trying to Find My Way Home."
It was his first attempt to explain himself:
"How do they expect a man to do the things that I have, and come back and be the same?" it begins.
"The things I've done that I regret, the things I've seen I won't forget for this life and so many more."
After recording the song, he posted it and others about his experience online, and reactions began to pour in.
"I just decided to put it out to whoever would listen, and when people started identifying with it, I thought, `Wow, I thought this was all in my head.'"
One mother, for instance, wrote to thank him and to tell him that her son, also a veteran, finally sought help for his PTSD after hearing the song.
"The songs that people identified with gave them tools to communicate to their spouses, to their therapists, to their community," Moon says. "By putting it in music, they could point to it and say, `This is how I feel.'"
For him, it was healing, too.
Moon eventually released an album and, in recent months, has been performing across the country – sometimes for veterans, other times for civilians. He does it all through his small nonprofit, Warrior Songs Inc., which he runs from the office in his suburban Milwaukee home.
Christopher Chappelle, an Iraq War veteran, attended the performance in the backyard of Wellness Works, a holistic health center for veterans and others in Glendale, Calif.
"His music is straight to the point. It's something we've all experienced," says Chappelle, now 26 and a college student living in Pasadena. "A lot of times people thank us and they don't even know what they're thanking us for."
Meanwhile, he says, he and other veterans have quietly struggled, as if "stumbling around in a dark room."
So while we think times have changed for veterans, in many ways, they haven't, says Jordan, the Yale doctoral candidate. He says these performances are much like the informal gatherings veterans have organized going back as far as the Civil War.
"They wanted to be free to tell their stories," Jordan says. "And we still haven't found a way to give veterans that platform. There's been no ritual of return that will allow them to do that."
That is why Mary Lu Coughlin, co-founder of Wellness Works, invited Moon to play in June for about 50 people, many of them veterans, young and old.
"Many of them are STILL trying to come home, even years later," Coughlin says. "So once they know we can hear that suffering, and not judge it, it allows them to heal as human beings, not just veterans.
"There is a spark of hope restored."
Still wracked by insomnia, and sometimes scattered because of his PTSD, Moon concedes that this has not been easy. He describes his condition as "sustainable," never all "better."
But though he rejects the hero label, he still considers himself a warrior, with a responsibility to look back to see who among his comrades remain in trouble.
"I'm going back in to get them," he says. And he's doing it with music – "because that's what I know how to do."
That, he says, is how he will complete the mission.