When Staff Sgt. James Cooper, 42, begins to miss his wife and his children back home at Fort Hood, he puts on some Lou Rawls "You'll Never Find Another Love Like Mine" and his mind drifts away from the harsh realities of the war in Afghanistan.
"It reminds me of how hard she works all year, because she never gets a day off," said Cooper, a 19-year Army veteran stationed at Bagram Air Base with Fort Hood's 1st Cavalry Division. "She has to play both roles, mother and father, and take care of all the little things when I'm gone, so that song reminds me of her every time I listen to it."
For Dylan Chambers, 26, an Austin Community College student who served two tours in Iraq, hardcore metal music helped prepare him for missions that included providing convoy security for troops during the height of the Iraqi violence. Texas heavy metal band Pantera, in particular, helped the Dallas-born soldier get through the war.
"It definitely helps get you in the right mindset if you need a little boost," he said. "Pantera would get me ready to do something a little crazier. I had an iPod, so I was ready to roll whenever."
Music has been important to soldiers since Roman times, helping them prepare for combat or reminding them of home. But during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, music has played a greater role than ever before. Thanks to MP3 players, service members can bring their music with them, creating their own combat playlists. And technological advances mean soldiers can record music while they are deployed: YouTube is filled with the remarkably poignant songs of soldiers, including everything from rap to acoustic guitar.
"The main difference we see in the present conflicts is how present music can be and how personal it can be," said Jon Pieslak , a music professor at the City College of New York and author of "Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War" (Indiana University Press, 2009). "Everyone has their own playlists and iPods. The earbuds can just take them away."
As part of the Veterans Day celebration, the American-Statesman interviewed more than a dozen active-duty soldiers and veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as well as from the Vietnam era.
For Fort Hood Staff Sgt. James Tapin, currently on his first tour in Afghanistan, music is a vital part of the daily routine in a war zone. "It's a double-edged sword," he said. "It makes you sad, you're missing (friends and family), but it also brings along happy memories. ... It makes life much easier. It gets you through the day and closes out the day for me."
Music from his 4,000-song iPod provided sanctuary for recently retired Air Force Master Sgt. Greg Beavers, 49, who treated war wounds as a medic in a combat support hospital near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2008.
"It made things easier if there is `an easy' as far as being in that situation," said Beavers, a Del Valle High School graduate. As Beavers' deployment neared its end, the Doobie Brothers' "Minute by Minute" took on an outsized importance for him.
Staff Sgt. Jason Glenn, a Fort Hood soldier who served three tours in Iraq maintaining helicopters, said music was vital inside the hangar, where soldiers received blocks of time to play their favorite tunes.
"We had a lot of different tastes in our shop," he said. "Some guys actually listened to opera and stuff, and it was relaxing, you know?"
Like many Iraq War soldiers, Glenn said his unit's anthem was "Bodies," a hard-driving metal song by Dallas' Drowning Pool. "It got everybody riled up," he said. "Everybody felt good; they felt like they actually accomplished something, so that was our anthem."
Pieslak, who surveyed dozens of soldiers and veterans for his book, said metal and rap were the most prevalent types of music in the war zone. Lil John's "I Don't Give a (expletive)" was an anthem for some units, according to Pieslak .
"They were catalysts to put soldiers in the psychological state they needed to be in," Pieslak said of those types of songs. "For soldiers who needed to heighten their awareness, those genres are well-suited for that."
Several soldiers have released hip-hop albums that chronicle their experiences in combat and their struggles upon returning home. While he was deployed, former Fort Hood soldier Neal ("Big Neal") Saunders recorded a rap album called "Live from Iraq" in a makeshift studio with other members of his unit in 2005. Saunders will perform on Nov. 19 in Killeen at a concert billed as "The Redeployment Tour."
Pieslak said music also played an important role in connecting service members to their families. "One guy I interviewed said he would listen to music his son liked," he said. "He didn't like it, but it would remind him of being home when his son played music too loud in his room."
For younger and older veterans, music can bring them straight back to the war zone and to their former comrades.
"Certain songs take you back to where you was," said Vietnam veteran Hank Hahn of Killeen, whose link to the outside world was a transistor radio tuned to Armed Forces Radio. "A lot of it we won't forget. You got friends that was close to you and they're either gone or mutilated, and that part you don't want to remember. But being retired military, we all understand it."