No matter what life throws at us, there’s always music. No matter how far away we are from the people and things we love, music is there to soothe, heal and transform. The story of Lisa Pena-Tillman reminds us that even if we’re at war in a foreign land, music is a home for the heart that we can always count on.
Lisa’s story starts in Cleveland, Ohio, a city that’s seen its fair share of depression, poverty and addiction. Amidst her gray surroundings, Lisa made the bold choice to escape what she knew would only eventually bring her down and walked herself to the Air Force Recruiter’s office where she enlisted to serve her country. Reflecting on this fork in the road, Lisa explains:
“I was actually going nowhere in life. A lot of my friends surrounding me as well, they weren’t going anywhere and some friends made some poor decisions. I lost my best friend to drug addiction. I kind of just looked around me and was like I can’t live this life. I can’t be surrounded by all of this sadness and this bad stuff that’s consuming my city. So I just one day woke up and was like I have to better myself. I have to make my parents proud and I have to do something with my life. So what better to do than serve for your country?
And so it was that sometime in 2011 Lisa found herself on a plane overseas, headed somewhere in the Middle East (due to it being classified, she could not reveal the exact location). Before she even landed on the other side of the Pacific, the experience would start to prove unsettling. “Let’s just say this is a man’s world. I look around me on the plane and there’s hundreds of other military people and I can maybe see one or two other females. So you’re just kind of intimidated a little bit.”
Upon landing in the Middle East, one can imagine that the situation and unfamiliar territory is an adjustment to say the least, which Lisa is able to aptly describe: “It was scary. It’s definitely scary. You have these people, you’re in their country and they’re looking at you like ‘Are they going to hurt me?’ Every day was something different.”
Lisa’s role was to assist the B1 Bombers, which would drop food, supplies and bombs over their respective target areas. While her duties were exciting to be a part of, the scenario itself presented its own set of anxieties:
“We take everything for granted over here. I’m just going to tell you that right now. The clean water, the kids’ clean clothes. Even a regular restroom. We have no idea how good we have it over here until we go over there.”
One of the most difficult parts of Lisa’s job her assistance in the send off of caskets back to the States that were brought from battle. Regardless of rank or time in the field, the experience equally affected those exposed: “That by far was probably one of the hardest things for my career, to see grown men draping over caskets and crying. They outrank me by so much but all in all we’re all together, we’re all family over there.”
One thing that provides solace to Lisa and many troops like her worldwide is the power of music. As it turns out, Lisa’s love for the language of the soul goes way further back than her time in service, a time when music becomes a necessary coping mechanism for most. As it turns out, Lisa has possessed an unquenchable thirst for music from the jump:
“I live for music. I love music. I used to promote. I used to just do anything and everything I could. Peabody’s down at Cleveland: I was at every single concert. Music’s absolutely one of the things that got me through missing my family, missing the holidays, Christmas, my birthday, Thanksgiving…everything. I knew it was going to be hard and difficult, but I live for music – I do. I run to music. I work out to music. I work with music. Everything. That was the one thing we could take with us. We can’t take our family – I could take pictures but I couldn’t take them with me.”
Apart from her day-t0-day assignments, Lisa filled her days with one of her other passions: fitness. Lisa’s been an avid runner and found the outlet to be very therapeutic during her off-time. “All I did was work and go to the gym and run,” Lisa says. Naturally, music would play throughout every step. The geographical isolation combined with Lisa’s musical obsession forced her into the days of way back in order to procure her audio medicine, as she would have friends and family back home send her CDs which she would wait for in the mail. “Our computers didn’t have the connection or whatever we needed,” Lisa cites. Lisa went even more old school when it came to actually listening to the CDs that were mailed to her: “I drove these trucks, these shitty-ass trucks. We didn’t have our cell phones up and listen to music. We couldn’t do that so we had a CD player. We’d bring a radio with a CD player and sit it in the truck. It was crazy. It was definitely very old school.”
And what was blasting out of the CD player? None other than Tech N9ne, who gained a fan in Lisa way back in 2001, when she heard her from being a fan of Twiztid and Insane Clown Posse. The transformative and escapist properties that Tech N9ne’s music held for Lisa proved to be a much-needed break from reality.
“Every time I listen to it, no matter how crazy it is, I’m always happy. If I run and I listen to Tech N9ne I know I’m going to be pumped. I just get excited. No matter what it was, his music would make it better. If we had to go to that plane and do what we had to do with the caskets, I knew I was either going to go to my little shack that I had to stay in or go to the gym, and it would take my mind off of it. There’s on artist or type of music that just puts you in a different mind. So I would just pop it in and I was in a different world. I would forget what I’d seen that day and I would just be happy for that hour or two that I was listening to it and I’m so thankful for it.”
Lisa’s thankfulness to Tech N9ne goes beyond the music itself, as she recalls the excitement she felt when she found out Tech N9ne was coming overseas to tour the Middle East for USO.
“I was so pumped. I went to my commander, which is like, he’s a big deal, and I walked up to him like ‘Sir! You have no idea! Tech N9ne is coming to the Middle East!’ He’s like ‘What?’ and he’s just tilting his head. I’m like ‘Sir, you have no idea! He’s my favorite artist.’ ‘I can tell, I can tell. Tell me more about this,’ he said and I was like ‘Sir, I’ve been to a thousand and one concerts but this one will be phenomenal! He’s coming here for US. They’re not getting paid. They’re coming in harm’s way.’ I was so stoked.
Although he did not come where we were at, I was still thankful because I still had brothers and sisters that need that release just like I did. I was so pumped and just so thankful. That means a lot to me, as him being my favorite artist I was just, that means a lot to me. Coming from over there, it’s scary as a civilian artist. You don’t know what to expect and that’s a huge, huge leap.”
In honor of Tech’s visit to the Middle East, Lisa had a flag flown. She gave the flag to the pilots and her commander, who flew it when they dropped bombs and carried out their respective missions. Lisa mailed the flag to Tech and Strange Music CEO Travis O’Guin as her “small thank you.”
The thanks also extends to Tech for his song “The Noose”, Tech N9ne’s ode to the troops following his trip to Fort Pendleton, where he was able to witness the effects of combat on the wounded in close and personal detail. The result of that trip was a song that has touched the hearts of our soldiers and addresses their deepest concerns:
“We’re the 1% of the US and for an artist to even consider writing something for us like that and making a video like that, it’s phenomenal. We’re thankful once again, along with my other military buddies. I post it and I’m like ‘Just look at this. Watch this and listen,’ and they’re just like ‘Wow, that’s powerful.’ Just that they were even thinking of us and wrote a song like that is powerful to me and once again I can’t thank them enough.”
Lisa served her time successfully and without injury. She now resides back home in Ohio where she is currently stationed. She still carries her love for music and fitness everyday, currently training for a half-marathon (to the soundtrack of Tech N9ne no doubt).
When asked if there was anything else she would like to add to her story, Lisa closed out our interview with a heartfelt thank you to Tech and Strange Music, and stated the following:
“I would just say to Tech, and everybody actually, I just want to send my thank you for all the sacrifices that they have made for us as fans and as a military member. I just want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart for entertaining us for all of these years and for doing what you do on a daily basis. I know it’s not easy. I know it’s a struggle. I know what it’s like to be away from your family. I just really appreciate it and thank you for the entertainment and the fun times throughout the years and more to come for sure.”
Thank you Lisa for your story, service and example.