By Karen Gilchrist
Producer, BBC 1Xtra's Live From Iraq programme
US soldier Sgt Neal Saunders turned to music to cope with the trauma of serving in Iraq. Here is his story.
Sgt Saunders was deployed to Baghdad in March 2004 with the 1st battalion of the 12th cavalry regiment. His unit was ambushed even before it reached the Iraqi capital on the road from Kuwait.
Sgt Saunders decided he had to find some way of expressing how he felt.
"When you see someone standing beside you take a bullet, it changes you... After the first ambush, I knew if I spent my last dime I was going to spend it telling this story."
Sgt Saunders, 27, had been in the US military for four years before his posting to Iraq. And while he had dabbled in music in the past, he had never done anything serious with it.
It was the pressure and frustration of Baghdad that compelled him to record an album.
More than girls and gangstas
The decision to capture the soldier's perspective in rap music was one thing, but the reality of recording in a war zone was quite another.
Sgt Saunders had to set up a recording studio in the middle of a 30ft by 30ft (9m by 9m) room he shared with eight other soldiers.
Each piece of equipment was shipped from America - much to the bemusement of his comrades. And he single-handedly built a vocal booth - out of old sheets of plywood, with traditional mats used as dampening.
Initially Sgt Saunders wanted to involve many more soldiers in the recordings, but some of them just wanted to focus on rapping about girls, life on the streets and being a "gangsta".
But for him, the point of the album was to capture the reality of life as a soldier at war.
Live from Iraq is the title track:
'Cause this is live from Iraq
Home of too many soldiers' graves
Where for our country
We gamble with our lives every day
And there are no blue skies here
Every colour's grey
This is the blood of soldiers of which the streets are now paved
And there is no reimbursement for the price that we pay
While y'all home sleep we're here constantly getting weighed
And every convoy that rides out
Constantly getting sprayed
But we don't fold hands
The cards we are dealt get played
His superiors were aware of what Sgt Saunders was doing, though they did not hear the music until they were back in the US.
Indeed it was one of his senior officers that dubbed him "Big Neal" - the name he now uses for his music. As long as Sgt Saunders only made music in his own time and didn't let it interrupt his duties, that was accepted.
The entire album Live from Iraq was written, recorded and produced in Baghdad. And that was important to Saunders - there should be no self-censorship. Emotions were recorded, not analysed for political correctness.
It means that the album makes for uncomfortable listening, and Saunders acknowledges that some of the thoughts in retrospect can seem dehumanising. But he says the aim was not to make a successful commercial album, it was to be a voice for soldiers and to reflect the reality of war.
Saunders has now left the army and is back in the army town of Killeen, Texas, where he is setting up a recording studio and running projects to support serving and former soldiers.
Saunders' co-performer, Clay, in their improvised vocal booth
More than 10,000 copies have been sold and Saunders receives e-mails from soldiers and their families saying the album has helped them deal with their experience of war.
"I've even gotten emails from parents that say, 'I've listened to this album and my son or daughter they don't talk to me about this," he says.
"And after listening to the music I understand maybe why they'd want to keep it to themselves and they don't want to talk about it, because they still can't deal with it.'"
The documentary Live in Iraq is broadcast on BBC 1Xtra on Wednesday 22 March at 1430 GMT.