Danville: Marine veteran turned musician helps combat PTSD

John Preston strives to fight a different kind of battle with his music

Marine veteran John Preston, a Danville resident and musician who is set to release a new album this fall, has worked to raise awareness and funds to help combat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among fellow military veterans.

Having suffered from the disorder himself, Preston said the message he desperately wants to get across with his music is that finding your own mission and your own way of life can and will get you out from under PTSD.

"One in five of us who return from Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. We wanted to create a change and make a difference," said Preston, who works with Pacific Records to donate 30% of his album sales to the Boot Campaign, a charity organization that raises awareness about the challenges military members face during and after service and provides support to veterans and their families.

A 34-year-old who works as a firefighter in Palo Alto while also juggling a music career, Preston is set to release his next album, "It's Not Better," in November. The six-year Danville resident said he wrote the album in just a week and plans to release the first single, "Superman Falls," closer to the end of the year.

A native of Kentucky, Preston served in the Marines for four years, enlisting in 2000 to follow in the footsteps of his father and two brothers.

He achieved the rank of sergeant during his tenure, serving with Second Battalion Seventh Marines and working as a guard force and infantry squad leader running over 100 combat missions while in Iraq.

He said he viewed his combat missions as an attempt to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people and help build a stable society.

"Much of that was accomplished in my time there as I saw several schools opened and jobs created for the Iraqi people," Preston said. "I still take pride in all that was accomplished during my time in Iraq."

Two weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Preston recalled experiencing a personal turning point when he went back home to visit his family.

Music was a big part of his life and always had big dreams of one day becoming a rock star, although he was just a farm boy from Kentucky, he said.

He has a special bond with his mother, and as he thought of her on that flight home, he began to write. Anything that came to mind, he wrote down. Preston said he decided to share his lyrics with fellow Marine Justin Heisey, a musician from a small town in Pennsylvania.

After collaborating on a few songs together, the two began recording a new song, "No Matter Where I Am."

"We recorded the song in some dude's living room for like 15 dollars an hour," Preston said, describing the single as a song is for everyone to know what parents feel for their children who are in armed forces during the war.

Eventually, "No Matter Where I Am" got picked up by a Kentucky radio station. "The quality of the song was horrible, but it has so much meaning and purpose," Preston said. "I knew we created something powerful."

Teaming up with fellow Marine and guitarist Shane Roberts a year or so later, they played in a short-lived band called Hwy 42.

Then in 2004, when Preston was promoted to corporal, leading a squad of marines on 120 combat missions, that his life musical changed.

While in a town near Fallujah where his Marine unit set up a school, the children were all shouting, "Good, good, America," Preston recalled. Soon after getting back to his base, he created lyrics to go with the chant. He teamed back up with Heisey and recorded the song "Good, Good, America." The song and accompanying video became a national sensation.

A record deal followed and although it was a six-month contract and only one single was released, that catapulted Preston into the public eye. "Next thing we knew, we were on the front page of the LA Times," he said.

As time went on, he began accepting "probably won't be a famous musician," so firefighting was the next call of duty for Preston. In 2007, he said he made the painful choice of walking away from music to become a firefighter in Palo Alto.

But music came calling again almost seven years later after Preston tore his shoulder while on duty in 2014 and was told he'd be out for several months. After his surgery, Preston said he realized he was still passionate about following his musical dream. He decided to give music another chance, and this time, he was serious about making a change.

He called up his Marine brothers and fellow musicians Roberts and Heisey, who were quick to join back with him after 10 years and continue what they had started then, according to Preston.

Returning to the rock and alternative music scene, he signed with Pacific Records -- formally known as Real2Reel Records -- for the second time and released the single "This is War" in October 2014.

The song became a national media topic when the Marine veteran made a call to action to veterans across the nation to stand against ISIS, which had just made a surge through Syria and Iraq. The music video had thousands of views online and secured Preston another release with Pacific Records.

Nominated for a Los Angeles Music Award, his debut EP, "Your War is Over," was a tribute to the veterans. He said he hoped it would help them cope with the struggle of transitioning back to a normal life.

The first single, also titled "Your War is Over," was written for one of his friends, a war vet suffering from PTSD.

"He lost everything," Preston said. After finishing the song, he said he realized it could change other people's lives too. He needed everyone to hear it. Soon after, he received plenty of feedback. "So many people were calling me. People who were about to jump off of ledges and end their lives; I knew I was making a difference," he added.

PTSD again struck close to home for Preston when his brother, who suffered from the disorder, died by suicide last winter. His brother's depression was heightened when their father died about six months earlier, according to Preston.

He said he believes his father also suffered from PTSD, although it was undiagnosed. "No one knew he was suffering inside. But then again, Superman wouldn't tell you that kryptonite was his weakness," Preston added.

Preston said his brother's death was enough to make him consider ending his music career, but he has instead fueled his hard work ethic to promote a national campaign against suicide.

Today, he is a firefighter again for Palo Alto and is balancing that role along with his music career that supports military veterans in need.

"Those of you that are on the wrong side trying to move forward, you have to check yourselves. Keep going and persevere," Preston said. "We gave our lives to something bigger than us. Knowing that has to give you something. It's not over."

Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly described how John Preston's father died. He died in 2015 as a result of complications from a routine surgery, according to Preston. DanvilleSanRamon.com regrets the error.

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