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This Arizona composer has 'invisible wounds' from 2 Iraq tours. But they're audible in his music

Jason Phillips
Jason Phillips
Jason Phillips

It’s not everyday you meet a man who has gone from two tours of duty in Iraq to composing a symphony performed by a major orchestra.

A Valley resident has done just that, and recently graduated from Arizona State University with a doctorate in Musical Arts.

Jason Phillips is currently the music director at Mountain View Lutheran Church in Phoenix. He had always intended on a career spent in music. But all that changed on September 11, 2001, when as a 30-year-old, he enlisted in the Army.

“I was in a place in my life where I thought I could use some growing up, felt a little stuck, thought that joining the military would be good for me, personally, financially, felt that even taking a break from music would be good for me as well," Phillips said.

As an Army journalist and photographer, “it gave me the opportunity to meet many different people and see many different things. I tell people I had some of the best times of my life in Iraq, and some of the worst,” Phillips said.

Phillips would serve two tours of decorated duty in Iraq documenting the front lines of some of the most brutal conflicts in places like Tikrit, Baghdad and Fallujah.

“I knew many people who had, many fellow soldiers who had been wounded, who had suffered grievous wounds and several who did not make it home," Phillips said. "So I came home and felt grateful that I had come home alive and whole, I did not account for the psychological wounds I had carried.”

Back at home with a wife and three children, those PTSD scars nearly came apart.

“I had a real mental health breakdown, where I never considered myself to be the kind of person that would hear voices and see things, but I did. It got that extreme. That was when things were at their lowest for me. That was when my wife insisted that I start seeking help," Phillips said.

He did get help, from the VA and from his music. He signed up for master's programs at the University of Houston and the University of Montana, where for his dissertation he composed the work called Three Aspects, later performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

"Three Aspects" composed by Jason Phillips

“I thought about it as this huge castle of sound that I could live in, and I’ve thought of my composition even since then as being this sort of ‘sound world’ that I can go to for sanctuary," Phillips said.

His music’s frenetic pace and discordant tone is no coincidence.

“There’s no escaping for me the fact that my experiences will also be with me," Phillips said. "And it’s always going to be in my music. One message that I want to get across as a solider, as a veteran, as someone who carries psychological war wounds, it’s always there. Those are invisible wounds. Not in my music. It’s audible.”

At age 52, Phillips recently received his Doctor of Musical Arts from ASU.

His composition dissertation this time is called “Soldiers Symphony,” and he’s currently looking for an orchestra to perform it.

“In that work, there’s no escaping that I am a soldier, I was a soldier and I carry with me the memories of my time in Iraq, I carry the wounds, the psychological war wounds that will always be with me. It’s all there in my music, so calling it a ‘Soldier’s Symphony’ represents many, many things to me," Phillips said.

Phillips hopes his story can help others dealing with similar issues.

“Every veteran that is suffering from psychological war wounds that never heal can find their own sanctuary. For me, it was composition. I want others to be comfortable talking about their experiences. I know I had a difficult time talking about it," Phillips said.

For Phillips, his music clearly does the talking.

“Yes it does, and in many ways as a musician, I’ve always felt that way about my emotional life - that I can speak through my music, and I think a lot of musicians feel that way.

Phil Latzman is an award-winning digital journalist and broadcast professional with over 25 years of experience covering news and sports on a multitude of platforms.
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