Ten years ago, Sonja St. John lost her brother Jon to an IED in Taji, Iraq. Sonja is both a violinist and an artisan violin maker, and Jon was one of her biggest fans. She can still describe in detail how she slid down the wall to the floor as she fielded the call from her folks that informed her that Jon had been killed. She married in 2008, and was divorced seven years later. Her world began to unravel, and she was simply lost. For a good while, Sonja was so overcome with grief from losing her brother that she subsequently became overcome by alcohol. She stopped playing her violin completely. It took more than one self-admitting stint in rehab for her to get clean. One significant part of her recovery after she got out functioned as a powerful, creative, meditative process: making violins for the families of other fallen vets.
Each violin Sonja makes, whether it is for a vet’s family or not, is a hand-crafted work of art. Then she adds a special touch. Inside the body of each violin, she puts a note she writes herself which is glued in such a way that it doesn’t interfere with the distinctive vibrations that make up a violin’s unique sound. For veterans who have made the ultimate sacrifice to protect us, she writes something along the lines of “In honor of past, present and future souls of courage and wisdom.”
While she made great progress through making violins for others, another enormously important aspect of her healing was to start making music again, not just instruments. Enter Jason Moon, himself a musician as well as a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He and Sonja had known each other as teenagers, and while Jason came home from Iraq in one piece physically, inside he was battling PTSD. He felt badly that he hadn’t been able to be much help when Jon died, but truth be told, he was barely hanging on himself. One of the things that made such a difference for Jason was music, and as a result, he became the head of a non-profit arts organization for veterans, which he called Warrior Songs. He also has a band, and they write and record music especially for veterans. The CDs are given to veterans for free, and are intended to be therapeutic in nature.
Jason asked Sonja if she would help him with a second project. This one was to focus on female soldiers and their stories. It is also for wives, sisters and mothers who’ve lost loved ones in combat. Sonja agreed, picked her violin back up, and started practicing. She saw the project as a way to heal, to help, and to stay sober.”I just really woke up when I realized I know that my brother was willing to die for me and our country,” she said. “I better be willing to live and take advantage of what I DO have.”
Though Sonja is an accomplished violinist, she had never been in a recording studio, and was nervous. To help calm herself down during the session, she kept a picture of her brother on a music stand near her and “played for him.” The result, according to all who were present, including her parents and the sound staff, “was lovely.” For her part, Sonja replied through the studio mic, “Let’s all thank my brother.” Indeed, let’s all thank Jon and everyone else who has made the ultimate sacrifice for us, and may they hear our song of thanks loud and strong.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner