On one of the many days Leo Dunson wanted to die, the Iraq War veteran put a gun to his temple and pulled the trigger. The weapon misfired.
It was another inexplicable failure, like his divorce or inability to make friends after the war.
In a Las Vegas recording studio, Dunson rapped about his life: “What’s wrong with me? Got PTSD. These pills ain’t working, man, I still can’t think.”
One in six Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder in 2011, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. .
Dunson, 26, discharged from the Army in 2008 and diagnosed with PTSD, says he uses music to stay alive. He refuses to attend counseling or visit a VA hospital.
His self-treatment is violent images and words, the gritty marriage of a genre born in low-income, black neighborhoods and the horrors of a foreign war.
He made five albums in four years, all focused on his life as an infantryman. Thousands of fans followed him on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube . He enrolled in college, hoping to pursue a career in public service. This year, Dunson moved into his first bachelor apartment.
And still, he describes himself as a man without happiness or friends.
“You are like, what the heck did I do to deserve this?” he said.
In his music, Dunson recalls pressing a gun against an enemy’s mouth, becoming an alcoholic and hitting his wife. He laments learning how to kill when he was only 20 years old.
In “PTSD” he raps: “I’m back and forth in my head and I don’t know what’s wrong. At nights I shake. I feel like a stranger is in my home. Me and my wife can’t get along.”
In another song, Dunson expressed words he would never tell his family: “Honestly, over there, I wish I had died.”
He was 18 when he enlisted, eager to serve his country after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2011.
His assault rifle became his life, he said. He held it while he ate and slept and fired toward crowds of Iraqis when he felt threatened. One day, he took his gun and put it to his friend’s head. They laughed and someone took a photo.
Through his music, Dunson explored his desire to kill and die. He found a producer for his albums. Soon, he was performing concerts at bases and veterans events.
Dunson hopes his music helps other veterans confront their PTSD, even as he struggles with it himself.
“If I had died over there, I would have got a 21-gun salute. Everybody would praise me like I was a king. What do I get now?”