When Jon Bon Jovi was asked to appear in New York City at the Christmas Tree Lighting in Rockefeller Center on Wednesday night, he shared the moment with the men and women of the military by performance of his song, “Unbroken,” from the documentary “To Be of Service.”
While acknowledging that appearing at a tree lighting isn’t something he would ordinarily do, the opportunity to shine a light on veterans who are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder — as well as the service dogs that are the central theme of the documentary, which was directed and produced by Academy Award-nominated director Josh Aronson — was too important to pass up.
“It’s much bigger and more important than giving presents, when you think about all the men and women who are abroad or who are gone,” Bon Jovi tells Variety over the phone from his home. “At this time of the year, when people are supposed to be coming together, you can’t forget about those who were there to protect what this country is, and who are in different parts of the world and sacrificing themselves. So when they gave me the opportunity to do it, I absolutely jumped at it.”
Written from the perspective of a soldier living with the ghosts of combat was a “daunting task,” he explains. Despite his own parents having met while both served in the Marines, Jon himself has not served and the subject matter was “foreign to me.”
“When you write a song that has to do with soldiers, my only background in this was protest songs that were of the era, whether it was John Fogerty about Vietnam and “Fortunate Son,” or ultimately [Bruce Springsteen’s] “Born in the USA,’” he says.
But when Aronson reached out to discuss the movie, he was instantly inspired.
“He told me just a couple of things that the soldiers had said that were going to be in the film. And when I asked him the name of the movie and he said, ‘To Be of Service,’” I got it. It came to me immediately — in the chair I’m sitting right now at my desk. I just grabbed my guitar and pretended to be that soldier and the narrator of the film. And so being very rudimentary in the chord progressions, I pretended to be that guy telling his story, and then I fine-tuned it when I saw edits of the film.”
With the moving film sure likely to be an Academy Awards contender, the question arises whether Bon Jovi — who was nominated for an Oscar in 1991 for “Blaze of Glory,” from the film “Young Guns” — get another shot at Oscar gold?
“There are a lot of great songs written in the course of a year,” he says. “I also know that when you’re writing something that is as real as this, which is about real people, it does stand out. You know, this isn’t about a fictional character (like “Blaze of Glory,” which won a Golden Globe in 1991), this isn’t even “Not Running Anymore” (from the 2012 film “Stand Up Guys,” which was nominated for a Golden Globe). This is much different, but [a nomination would bring] a lot of attention to this amazing cause, and it would honor all those men and women.”
While the story takes the listener from the idealistic soldier’s journey from boot camp through battle, to night sweats and heartache, Bon Jovi also found a way to end the song on a hopeful note, concluding “well, the blessing and the curse is/ Yeah, I’d do it all again.”
“I wanted to give the soldiers something they could be proud of, that there wasn’t that dark moment where they were harkened back to that, but it left them in that place. I wanted them to identify with this, when they took the uniform off and still have that same sense of pride as the first day that they put it on,” he said.
One aspect of the film that Bon Jovi said he was particularly moved by was the way service dogs were sometimes more therapeutic for veterans than prescribed medication.
“You talk to some of the [veteran] guys and girls, and they say the medication just made them feel like zombies,” he says. “They wanted something else, and being off the meds, meeting the dogs ended up being an angel in disguise.”
Over the next year, the band and Island Records’ will donate 100% of the net proceeds from the download of “Unbroken” to the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation.
“It didn’t take any arm twisting there either,” he said. “This holistic approach with service dogs works. And so if I could raise some money to help, then mission accomplished.”
Working with veterans is a personal mission with Bon Jovi, as his JBJ Soul Foundation has recently partnered with Help USA, providing affordable housing to 77 Washington D.C. veterans at what will be “The Parks of Walter Reed,” a project that took ten years to get off the ground, but was finally completed in time to get veterans settled in homes for the holidays.
“They’ll have access to medical and legal teams and job training, which is a way to get those men and women back into the workforce because the government can’t do it all alone,” he says. “And as we know, through the Soul Foundation, we’ve built nearly a thousand units of housing for affordable housing for all kinds of people. One segment of course is vets, not only in DC but in Philadelphia many years ago. And that segment of the population, they identified so strongly with the uniform and they came back with all that training and they can’t get back into the workplace,” he said.
While “Unbroken” is available now, the song will also be included in the forthcoming Bon Jovi album, “Bon Jovi 2020,” he said.
“it won’t just stand out and sound like it’s a red herring,” he says. “There are many songs on this record that deal with a lot of issues, from gun violence to [exiled former San Francisco 49ers quarterback] Colin Kaepernick to the [Trump] Administration.”
“To Be of Service” is currently streaming on Netflix.