This #OperationSong spotlight is on the song “Purple Heart” by Army Veteran Joseph Zaragoza.
Army Veteran Joseph Zaragoza had never heard of Operation Song until the Cohen Military Family Clinic encouraged him to participate last year. Zaragoza was matched with Jason Sever, an Operation Song writer, and the visit started with Zaragoza sharing his experience about the military. Zaragoza’s story turned into the song “Purple Heart.”
During the writing process, Zaragoza realized he didn’t want this song to just benefit him, so he used his personal experiences and feelings to create a song he hopes all Purple Heart recipients can identify with. He recognized that there is not much support for these recipients to help them face recovery and the difficulty of carrying the Purple Heart, an item that is “light as a feather and a world of weight.”
Zaragoza was hesitant to participate in Operation Song at first, but afterwards he found the process to be liberating. He hopes his song can reach as many people as possible and wants to help listeners understand the challenges soldiers face and the sacrifices they make.
Zaragoza joined the Army when he was 19 and went to Fort Benning, Georgia, for basic training, and left after his first term ended.
Fiften years later, when Zaragoza was 34, he lost his job during the recession. His unemployment benefits only provided support for a limited amount of time, and Zaragoza once again felt the call to serve. His congressman helped him enlist in the Army again, and he was sent back to basic training, discovering that the process felt much easier the second time around.
Zaragoza joined the 25th Infantry Division in Fort Wainwright, Alaska, and soon deployed to Afghanistan. Later, he served with the Rakkasans of the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.
In April 2015, on his last deployment to Afghanistan, Zaragoza’s friend, Cpl. John “Doc” Dawson, was killed in action while on an escort mission. Zaragoza and his unit mourned. His song, “Purple Heart,” is dedicated to Dawson, honoring his sacrifice. In June, about two months after Dawson had died, Zaragoza’s platoon was ambushed during a key leader engagement mission. A hand grenade was thrown at the platoon and Zaragoza was hit.
When Zaragoza returned home, he brought with him his Purple Heart and all the weight that came with it. At home, he attended workshops to help with his posttraumatic stress and traumatic brain injury (TBI) recovery. He also rediscovered his love of creating art, which he had gone to school for prior to re-enlisting in the Army. His wife, Georgia Zaragoza, supported this endeavor and helped him start making art again. Zaragoza’s art uses a variety of forms to convey what PTSD feels and looks like in order to help the public understand the experience. He also shares his artwork and techniques with other Veterans to aid in suicide and depression prevention and to help those who are struggling with anxiety. Some of his work can be found on the Facebook page Vets4Humanity.
The imagery in “Purple Heart” refers back to Zaragoza’s roots as an artist. He sings, “It was born all blue and red / mix ‘em up this color is what you get,” to emphasize that the Purple Heart is not just a medal, but also an experience that reshapes the recipient’s identity as they carry it with them throughout their life. Zaragoza’s Purple Heart has shaped his life and has not come without its challenges. However, through his art and his work with Operation Song, he is able to help others process and live with the burden as well.
We thank him for his service.
Operation Song is a non-profit based in Nashville, Tennessee, that partners professional songwriters with Veterans, active military and their families to help them tell their stories through song. Since 2012, they have written over 600 songs with Veterans of WWII to those currently serving. They hold weekly workshops in Middle Tennessee and sponsor events and group retreats throughout the U.S. Those who serve need no musical background, only the desire to tell their story. If you are interested in learning more about Operation Song or hearing more songs, please visit: http://www.operationsong.org/.
Writer: Kimberly Kassis
Editor: Christopher Wilson and Alli P and Julia Pack
Fact Checker: Kinsley Ballas
Graphic Designer: Katie Rahill