Sgt. Anthony Bunch is a 29-year-old from North Carolina with a laconic manner and a Southern sense of politeness. Almost a decade ago, he was charged as an accomplice in a drive-by shooting, and wound up in front of a judge. The guy, a former Marine, gave Bunch a choice: "Go to war or go to jail."
Bunch chose war. He joined the Army in 2007 as a truck driver in the Army 82nd Airborne. In late 2008, he was shipped to Iraq, where he worked as lead gunner for a convoy. He'd be out in front of a dozen vehicles, manning a spotlight at night, looking out for explosives and other hazards placed in their way. "It was up to me for the whole convoy," he says. "If there's something forward that you don't see, the whole rest of the convoy eats it."
The job was grueling, physically and mentally. Bunch sustained a serious head injury. He was seconds away from being killed by a mortar, and it shook him up so bad that he got married a month later because he was convinced he wasn't going to survive his tour. "There was a lot of stress on me," he says. "I can't begin to describe it."
Bunch had rapped when he was younger, and had come to rely on hip-hop during difficult stretches. "Every time I would get myself in a situation where I'm like, damn, what am I doing? I would always pen something about it," he says. "It was therapeutic." So when things got bad in Iraq, Bunch and a friend set up a Conex shipping container with a computer and some microphones they bought online. "When we came off of the patrols, we would hit the Conex and record, or just write, or freestyle," Bunch says. Their ranks swelled. "The Conex would turn from three to four people into six or eight. You had people who didn't even rap, and they're like, Alright, I'm gonna do it. We had a shared moment there."
Their superior officers even got into the act, insisting the rapping soldiers practice their skills by freestyling new cadences during runs and marches, even if the rhymes weren't exactly what the brass wanted to hear. "Our whole Conex rap sounded like something from [revolutionary-minded rappers] Immortal Technique or dead prez or Ras Kass," Bunch says. "We weren't rapping about, I'm gonna take your bitch and I got eight bitches." They rapped about their kids, about the war. "We're just like: send me home. Get me out of this. Fuck this shit."
After serving in Iraq for 13 months, Bunch was sent to a hospital in Germany. "My main injury was PTSD," he says. "But another injury I sustained was a TBI, which is a traumatic brain injury." He was in a vehicle responding to an IED blast when it happened. "My turret hit the top of a parking garage, and I got knocked unconscious," he says. "I jumped up and got back in my turret and we rolled on out. But I started having memory problems later. My depression got worse."
It was in Germany that Bunch wrote a song, "What It's Like," which attempted to deal with what he had seen. "Those lyrics were my suicidal thoughts; they were me trying to rationalize my deployment, what I did over there, what it was like for me," he says. "It was a relief, man. I was literally shedding tears."
After Bunch finished the song, he played it for a few people. They played it for a few people, and pretty soon the whole base had it. When Bunch returned to the US -- to Fort Stewart in Georgia -- an opportunity presented itself. His social worker told him about an organization called I WAS THERE, which provides free filmmaking workshops to veterans with PTSD. Bunch joined, and wound up making a video for "What It's Like." It combined black-and-white footage of Bunch in a cramped bedroom surrounded by prescription bottles, and color photographs of his time in the service and footage from Iraq.