Interview with organization founder Mike Henneberger | By John B. Moore
More than 30 percent of Vietnam veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. 10 percent of Gulf War veterans and roughly 11 percent of those who served in Afghanistan have also been diagnosed with PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, but those estimates are likely skewed, as many military vets never bother to seek help for their depression and anxiety.
Among those who have been diagnosed is Mike Henneberger, an Army veteran, writer, photographer, and longtime punk rocker. Henneberger is also the founder of Zero Platoon, an organization started and staffed by military vets seeking to help their fellow brothers and sisters in arms with the emotional and psychological issues that stem from being in the military and away from their homes and loved ones. The group relies on the help of touring musicians who play shows at military bases and hospitals—including Dave Hause, Rocky Votolato, and Chris Farren—in addition to offering online resources to help vets struggling with life in the military.
How did Zero Platoon first get started?
I got out of the Army in 2009 after being diagnosed with major depressive disorder and anxiety disorder. Ever since then, I’ve always wanted to do something that could help people like me and the friends I had in there who were dealing with similar issues. I had done music journalism and concert photography for a big part of my life, so in 2013, after I graduated from college and moved to New York for a job at Comedy Central, I started reaching out to bands and publicists I had met before. I started shooting video interviews with bands for our website and YouTube channel. Talking to bands about how music has helped them get through dark times in their lives just seemed like the perfect way to start Zero Platoon, since that’s pretty much how I’ve survived the hardest times in my life.
What is the organization’s mission?
The idea has always been to take bands and musicians to play shows at military bases and hospitals as a way to reach out to those dealing with mental health issues. Not just to entertain people, but also to hang out and just show them that we actually care about them, too. In the civilian world, I always found an escape and a sense of community when I went to shows. But when I joined the Army, I didn’t have that same freedom to go to shows as much as I had before, so I want to take the shows to those kids like me who are still serving. When you’re someone who finds comfort in music, life gets much harder when you start losing access to it.
So, you actually bring these musicians to perform in front of active military members?
This tour that I’m on now is the first tour that I’ve been able to work out military shows. Just yesterday, [Aug. 5], Rocky Votolato and I visited Cumberland Hall Hospital, near Ft. Campbell, Ky., home of the 101st Airborne. It’s a civilian hospital with a military unit that treats active-duty military members with depression, PTSD, and substance abuse problems.
I actually spent a month in a similar facility when I was in the Army. I was exactly where those guys are. Rocky played for about 45 minutes, and we got to hang out with about 20 male and female service members—mostly, if not all, Army—and it was an awesome experience. Everyone thanked Rocky and I for sharing our stories, they listened to every song and clapped after every one, they asked me and Rocky questions, and cracked jokes with us, and said that it was a great change in routine. Later on this tour, Rocky and I will be going to a similar hospital in El Paso, Texas, and to the one in Denton, Texas, that I spent time in.
How did you get Rocky Votolato and Dave Hause involved?
I met Rocky four months ago when his living room tour came through Brooklyn. He’s an amazing songwriter, and quite a few of his songs have really helped me get through stuff ever since I first started listening to him almost a decade ago. When I saw that he was coming to Brooklyn, I reached out to him to see if he’d do a Zero Platoon interview, and he agreed to. We must’ve talked for an hour, and he really opened up about struggling with severe depression and being suicidal in the past. We really connected on all that.
About a month later, Zero Platoon received a grant from KIND [Healthy] Snacks to sponsor a summer tour, and Rocky announced his tour with Dave Hause. So, I reached out to Rocky and he reached out to Dave, and now we’re all out on the road together for a long time.
Do some of the ticket fees collected go to Zero Platoon?
Our goal is to organize more tours in the future that will benefit Zero Platoon through ticket sales. That’s not the case with this tour, because it was already set and we kind of just hopped on. But we sell merch at every show, and that all goes straight back into the organization to sponsor the next tour and take those bands to do some military shows.
Do you have plans to sponsor other tours?
Nothing confirmed yet, but I don’t think the next one will be until early 2016.
What role does music play in helping those in the military who may suffer from PTSD or other forms of depression?
I can only answer this based on my personal experience. For me, music has always comforted me by showing me that there’s always someone else out there who is dealing with this shit too. It’s so easy to feel alone when you’re depressed, and it’s hard to talk to someone. It’s especially hard to talk to someone when you’re in the military, because there’s such a stigma of weakness when it comes to mental health issues. So, music always helped with that feeling. It’s still important to talk to someone, whether it’s a therapist, a friend or a family member, or a chaplain. But music was always there for me when I was too scared or embarrassed to do that.
What role did music play in your life during your time in the military?
Music has always been a huge part of my life. I was the lead singer in two bands in seven years. The first band did a couple tours; in fact, I actually turned 18 on tour. After I played in bands, I started interviewing them, and writing concert and album reviews for small publications back in Texas.
I’ve always related to music and turned to music to get me through anything. I always say that when I die, the first thing people might say about me is, “He really loved music.” One of the things that led me to start Zero Platoon was how drastically music’s role in my life changed when I was in the Army. Basic Training was 10 weeks without music, except for one night when Charlie Daniels played at Ft. Jackson, S.C., and we had to run a few miles to watch the show. I would’ve done that run for anyone, but I’ll gladly do it to see “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” in person.
When I got out of basic, I had to buy an iPod, and then, I didn’t have any music to put on it. Luckily, I met a guy named Kevin Hulse—who is still a good friend today, an amazing photographer, and one of the vets who helps me with Zero Platoon—and he had a bunch of punk, emo, and hardcore stuff on his computer, so I was able to snag some. We were at Ft. Meade, Md., right by Baltimore and D.C., so there were always shows coming through, but, like I said, I didn’t have the same freedom to go to them. The day I got out of the Army, I flew to San Antonio, Texas, spent the night at a friend’s house, and went to Warped Tour the next morning. That is how bad I missed it.
Have you set up similar tours in the past?
Last year, I sponsored a tour in the spring. I went out on two small runs with Pentimento, Have Mercy, and Gates—three insanely good bands. Then, in the fall, I went out for three weeks with Real Friends, Neck Deep, Cruel Hand, and Have Mercy. Those tours were to raise awareness for Zero Platoon and the issues we deal with.
Even though we didn’t do any military shows on those tours, at nearly every show, I met someone who was either in the military, had a loved one in the military, or had just gotten out of the military, and they all expressed how much something like Zero Platoon is needed. Whenever I go to these shows on tours, I always look at the crowds—sometimes a few hundred people—and I think about how at least one or two of those people may join the military in the next couple years for one reason or another. And they may have a perfectly healthy experience with it like many people do, but I want everyone to know that Zero Platoon is here for them in case they don’t.