Elvis had a colonel. The Beatles had a sergeant. But, when it comes to pop music that spans the spectrum of war and peace, no one tops the Boss.
Bruce Springsteen has been making albums for more than 50 years, melding folk, pop, rock, country, and blues. Within his body of work lay everything from anti-war folk protests to ballads on the reality of life combat veterans face. Not all of them were chart-toppers, but Springsteen is no less important to the story of American veterans than a yellow ribbon.
He’s been branded anti-American, and an all-American hero, occasionally in the same sentence.
Springsteen was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1999, 15 years after the release of “Born in the USA,” which called out Congress and the U.S. government for its treatment of returning veterans after the Vietnam War. During the ceremony, Springsteen was lauded for being “A voice of underdogs and the working class, thanks to his unsparing observations about what life was really like for those with no access to a silver spoon.”
According to TIME, Springsteen was drafted during the Vietnam War but never saw combat. He even tried getting dismissed for using LSD. But while he may have missed the war, it found him.
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Bart Haynes, the drummer in Springsteen’s first band, the Castiles, and Walter Cichon, one of his local idols, were both killed in Vietnam. Years later, troubled with guilt, Springsteen still wonders who was sent to war in his place, “because somebody did,” he said at a show on Broadway.
Springsteen raises millions of dollars for veterans causes every year, he also shines a light on their often unjust but silent struggles. This side of Springsteen’s art developed in no small part thanks to Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July. Springsteen met the Vietnam vet in the late 70s, and by 1981 had set up an event to support the floundering Vietnam Veterans of America nonprofit.
“Without Bruce, we would have folded,” said Bobby Muller, cofounder of the organization, which was buried in debt until Springsteen stepped in. “We would never have had a coherent Vietnam movement in this country.”
Springsteen wore his heart on his sleeve when it came to supporting those who would die for their country. And he pulled no punches when it came to criticizing those who would send them to war.
“His lyrics and ballads spoke to what so many veterans were feeling: it was as if he’d worn the uniform himself,” former Secretary of State John Kerry told TIME. “He was telling the raw story of the real experience, not the one being sold by politicians.”
For decades, Springsteen has rallied around a cause that many more have made only part-time gestures toward. For the Boss, it’s more than just showing up at parades, hand over heart. It’s more than a few angry tweets. And it’s more than being either for the troops or against war.
It’s much more complicated than that, and much more involved.
Springsteen has raised more than $40 million for veterans causes by headlining the Stand Up for Heroes concert for the last 12 years. He’s raised awareness of veterans struggling with PTSD by releasing songs like “Shut Out the Light,” the B-side of “Born in the U.S.A.,” and “Souls of the Departed.”
He’s made a few enemies along the way, but he’s made many more fans. And, if you’re a veteran, chances are, you may be one of them.
Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.