The Union Democrat
Love affair with music keeps veteran grounded
Alove for music is intertwined into the DNA of former Army Cpl. Robbie Kravan, of Ponderosa Hills. Music serves as a comfort, a touchstone, a lifesaver and a stress reliever, through all of life’s changes.
“I’ve been into music since birth,” Kravan, 48, said.
At 2 years old, Kravan remembers his mother putting her oversized sunglasses on his little face, so he could properly channel Elton John, as he sang and danced to “Funeral for a Friend/ Love Lies Bleeding.”
The family living room in San Diego, where Kravan grew up, served a dual purpose. In addition to a place to relax and watch TV, it was where he discovered his love of music. With his mother, Victoria Fisher, at the helm of the record player, he was introduced to a plethora of singers and bands, including Pink Floyd, Fleetwood Mac, Heart, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, Rod Stewart, Queen, Emerson Lake and Palmer, Billy Joel, Lynyrd Skynyrd and ZZ Top.
Joining his mother in the effort to musically enlighten a young Kravan was his Aunt Sue Hansen, who took him to see the satirical rock opera, “Tommy,” based on the original album by The Who, when he was only 2 or 3 years old.
“I think she took me (to see “Tommy”) because of Elton John being (cast) in it, but it totally turned me on to The Who’s music,” he explained.
The experience was lifechanging. Music had emerged as a driving-force in his life, etched into his memory with anything related to it.
Kravan remembers the first 8-track tape player he got as a gift from his mother, along with the tape “Kiss, Alive II,” that she bought for him. As his music tastes evolved and he got older, he would soon start finding ways to fund his music addiction.
“The first cassette tape I ever bought was Def Leppard’s ‘Pyromania.’ I passed out flyers for a new pizza place for two weeks to earn enough money for it,” he said. “I wore it out, I played it so much.”
The love of listening to music led to Kravan’s desire to learn to play an instrument when he was in the fifth grade. He began taking acoustic guitar lessons, but recognized early on that the instrument wasn’t for him, because playing it didn’t come naturally, it was forced, difficult and not much fun.
Unbeknownst to him, two years later, when he was in junior high school, Kravan would find a musical instrument, one he plays to this day, when he joined the marching band.
“I excelled at the snare drum,” he said.
Undeterred by not having a drum to practice on at home, the 14-year-old concocted a makeshift one using kitchen chairs and cushions from the couch. Surprisingly his mother was not upset at having her furniture dismantled or bothered by the racket, unless she was trying to watch TV, he said.
The snare drum was a joy to play, but true bliss would be reached when one of his friends who had a full drum set allowed him to play it. “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” by Metallica, was the first song he learned to play all of the way through. Kravan described the accomplishment as “exhilarating” and “validating.”
Metallica, who released the album “Master of Puppets” in 1984, sealed his musical fate with their offering.
“Metallica drove me to become a drummer,” he explained.
A call to serve: U.S. Army 2002-2006
On Sept. 11, 2001, the United States was forever changed when four commercial airliner jets, hijacked by 19 militants, associated with the Islamic extremist group al-qaida, carried out suicide attacks against four targets in America.
Two of the planes were flown into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. A third plane hit the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania.
Kravan, who was 29 at the time, watched in disbelief as the planes crashed, over and over again, on a continuous newsreel loop. The images of the Pentagon, engulfed in flames, and what happened in the aftermath of the attacks, stayed with him.
“Watching people help each other in that situation made me think it was a good time in my life to serve my country, to give something back,” he said.
The decision to enlist was made at that moment and in 2002 he flew to South Carolina to complete basic training, first at Fort Jackson and later Fort Gordon, in Georgia. Music, heavy metal music in particular, would keep him company on his military journey across the U.S., to Germany, and later the Middle East.
While stationed in Wurzburg, Germany, Kravan took the opportunity to discover new European heavy metal bands and explore the Bavarian region, which he described as “gorgeous” and “medieval,” a place he really enjoyed visiting.
Two years later, Kravan would find himself on a plane flying from Germany to Tikrit, Iraq, as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom II. In the Middle East he served as a communications specialist at the 67th Combat Support Hospital, focusing on the maintenance of the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MDR) tent that provided a place for soldiers to connect with loved ones via the internet or telephone.
“It was my baby,” he said, referring to the MDR tent.
Additional duties included maintaining daily radio communications with incoming helicopters and helping orderlies carry stretchers of the sick and wounded into the hospital upon arrival. Though not involved in
combat, the sacrifice and casualties of war were ever-present, daily, and all around him. Rocket fire around the hospital was a frequent interruption, and Kravan relied on music to help him stay focused, get energized and kept him from feeling despair.
Iraqi weather provided another challenge to being deployed in the Middle East. Intense heat, at times as high as 130 degrees, and dust storms that create zero visibility, might inhibit others from finding beauty in the region, but it did not deter Kravan, even as the war raged on around him.
“I saw palaces carved out of the sides of cliffs. Saddam Hussein’s maid quarters were mind-blowingly huge and very glamorous,” he recalled.
Kravan’s love of music was evident to the soldiers in his unit, but also caught the attention of his Noncommissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC), who recognized the importance of staying
positive and boosting morale and ordered him to host a few online heavy metal shows from the MDR tent. His playlists, laden with European heavy metal bands including Epica, a Dutch symphonic metal band, were a big hit.
“The year in Iraq brought everybody in the unit together,” he said. “You don’t think you can have a good time during wartime, but you can. We made the best of it.”
In 2005, Kravan returned to Germany, a welcome respite from the dusty desert of Iraq. He spent his last year in the Army, before being honorably discharged in 2006, bonding with his son, Jacob, who was 9 years old at the time.
Kravan rented a Mercedes, and the two traveled to heavy metal shows throughout Europe and included stops in Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands.
“Concerts were the destination for us,” he said. “My daughter, Dawn, is still jealous.”
In addition to Jacob, who lives in San Diego and is now 27, Kravan has a daughter, Dawn, 29, a mother of three, who lives in San Jose. Dawn was 11 years old when her brother got to go on a concert spree throughout Europe with her dad. She is an Epica fan like her father, and Kravan is hopeful that the band will tour in America this year so he can take her to a show.
Moving on, mental health and meeting Michelle
Life after the Army included a stint as a correctional officer, a job that introduced him to his now estranged ex-wife. Though his marriage ended in 2016, Kravan does credit her with convincing him to seek out treatment for PTSD, which he was officially diagnosed with in 2013.
“Car backfires and darkness, and I am back in Iraq,” he said. “Rocket fire around the hospital was frequent.”
“Medication has helped. I did counseling in the beginning. My attitude now is a lot more positive,” he explained.
Kravan encourages other veterans who are struggling with mental health issues to utilize the Veterans Crisis Line. It is free, confidential and available 24/7, he said.
A proud member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, VFW Post 4748 in Tuolumne, Kravan credits retired Army
Staff Sgt. Jill Main Paterson, of Twain Harte, a combat veteran who served two tours as part of the Operation Iraqi Freedom campaign, with his membership.
“She pursued me for a year before I joined,” he said.
The VFW is also a valuable resource for veterans, in addition to the Veterans Crisis Line, according to Kravan.
Being a part of the VFW has given the former soldier the support he needs and gives him a chance to offer his support to others.
Making positive changes in his life, including getting mental health treatment, allowed Kravan to focus on the future and turn what was once a hobby “tinkering with computers’’ into a career after he enrolled in ITT Technical Institute and earned a degree in Network Systems Administration in 2014. The training led to a job with Curtis Creek Elementary School in Sonora, where he currently works as a tech support specialist.
In 2016, Kravan met Michelle Carney, the love of his life, on an online dating app. The couple, who share a love of music and concert-going, celebrated their five-year anniversary on Oct. 22, and are engaged to be married.
Though Kravan is currently in between bands, he has plans to start his own band. For now, he plays the drums for himself multiple times a week for fun, to relieve stress, for relaxation and just because he loves to.
“Music saves me. It helps soothe me. It makes everything better,” he said.