‘Making it out alive’: War Hippies band together through Iraq experience, country music
Stars and Stripes March 15, 2023
WOODSTOCK, Ga. — Scooter Brown stood in the middle of the stage, his right hand pressing his hat to chest and his left grasping his Marine Corps-emblazoned guitar as his bandmate slapped a bow across his violin, playing what Brown proclaimed, “the best version of the national anthem you’ll ever hear.”
The Thursday night audience at MadLife Stage & Studio in Woodstock — a small city north of Atlanta — stood silent as Donnie Reis pulled his bow across his strings, sending the final notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” echoing throughout the intimate concert venue. The crowd burst into shouts and applause, while the duo, known as the War Hippies, shifted gears into an upbeat country rock song.
The inclusion of the anthem in their March 9 concert was the first of several opportunities that night to highlight Reis’ violin abilities, and a nod to their patriotism and the primary factor that brought Brown, 42, and Reis, 41, together about two years ago — their status as military veterans. Both men served early in Operation Iraqi Freedom, Brown as a Marine in the initial 2003 invasion and Reis about one year later with the Army’s 1st Infantry Division.
As youngsters, war made them men, Brown and Reis said during an interview hours before the March 9 show inside the recreational vehicle that they base themselves out of while touring. The hippie part — their long hair and beards and penchants for natural medicine, meditation and peacefulness — came later, as they navigated civilian life and the entertainment industry.
So, what is a War Hippie? Brown smiled at the question — one that he said he is constantly asked.
“Look, I'm all about like, peace and love, and I just want everybody to live their best life, to live and let live, and do your own thing, right?” Brown said between sips of red wine, leaning back casually against the RV’s kitchen countertop. “I like being out in nature, that kind of stuff. But, if somebody tries to take that peace from me, I’ll still stick an axe in their face, you know what I mean?”
Reis laughed at Brown’s definition, which he has heard repeatedly during the last two years.
“We’re not talking about like the anti-war Vietnam hippie,” Reis said.
Both musicians live in Nashville, where the pair first met having essentially no knowledge about each other’s musical background. Both had found successes in the industry, Brown as the front man of the Scooter Brown Band, and Reis as a touring violinist with country and rock acts and as the owner and producer at his Nashville recording studio, Twelve 3 South. On a whim one evening, Brown asked Reis to join him for a set in front of a Nashville crowd without the two men ever having played together. The result, the men said, was an electric four-song set.
It convinced Brown to pitch his idea for War Hippies to Reis.
“I’d had this idea for a while, but I needed another combat veteran who was good — like another military veteran who was a freaking good musician to make this thing work,” Brown said. “And, with Donnie, we’d done a couple shows together at this point and it just worked … so, I told him, you know, ‘I think this could be something cool.’”
Reis, who had largely planned to give up touring to focus on his business, agreed.
“That sounds dope,” Reis said he replied, committing to the project.
Last year, the duo officially launched War Hippies, putting out their self-titled debut album in October, and opening a tour, which this year will take them to locations across the country, headlining some shows — like the March 9 MadLife concert — and opening other nights for country stars, including Travis Tritt.
While the duo has already garnered some critical acclaim — their debut single “Killin’ It” reached No. 1 last year on The Country Network’s Top 40 chart — they believe 2023 could prove a breakout year and an opening act for what they hope to turn into a veteran-inspired War Hippie empire complete with music and television gigs alongside War Hippie-branded clothing and alcohol lines.
‘War is hell’
Brown and Reis said they had come a long way since their days in uniform.
March 2023 marks 20 years since then-Cpl. Brown helped lead a scout team with the Marines’ 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion into southern Iraq in the opening moments of the invasion. Brown’s unit spent weeks “running the rabbit” across southern Iraq— essentially moving forward to draw fire from Saddam Hussein’s army to identify enemy positions. The unit saw frequent firefights — the first tastes of combat for the Marines who, like Brown, had enlisted in a peacetime military.
“War is hell, and it sucks. But I also kind of enjoyed it,” Brown said. “I enlisted in peacetime, and you’re always, at least a little bit, hoping you get a chance to prove yourself. We trained so much that, and it’s almost surreal really, that when we actually went into the fight, it was like second nature. You have your [down] moments, and the adrenaline is going, and things can get chaotic or whatever, but it felt just like I was meant to be there at that time, and I loved that warrior aspect to it all.”
A little less than a year after the invasion, Reis would be sent to Iraq.
A heavy construction equipment mechanic, Reis would spend most of the deployment near Tikrit, manning .50-caliber machine guns and Mark 19 automatic grenade launchers as a rear gunner on mounted patrols to other U.S. locations to repair or improve infrastructure. Often his unit was tasked with providing security, responding to attacks or conducting route clearance operations. Bombings were common and firefights came in waves, sometimes day-after-day, he said.
“Sometimes it was absolute hell, and sometimes it's really boring,” Reis said. “When we got back [from the deployment] I was madder than hell. I hated it. I was so mad, but over time I learned to deal with it, and today I’m very proud of my service and the work I’m able to do, and this [War Hippies] really all stems now from us making it out alive.”
Reis remained in the Army until 2009. Brown left the Marine Corps shortly after leaving Iraq in 2003, choosing to pursue a music career instead of reenlisting, as he had long planned.
The band name War Hippies is a dichotomy, just as its members are, the pair said. Brown and Reis said they see each other as opposites in many ways. Reis is a trained musician who mastered the violin at 10 years old, plays piano and earned a full music scholarship to attend Ohio’s Miami University. After beginning his college studies, Reis left school to enlist in the Army, inspired to serve by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Brown did not start playing guitar until he was a 19-year-old Marine, picking at strings to kill time.
“I've learned to play by ear, and I couldn't tell you half the chords I play or even what key I'm in,” Brown said. “And, Donnie, he’s a school-trained, classically trained musician. So, our music has an approach from both sides of that spectrum, and we meet in the middle.”
Reis said he uses his training at times to rein in some of Brown’s rawness.
Brown said that approach adds to the duo’s rock country sound, which he described as having “a very orchestral symphony kind of sound … mixed with hints of the fiddle and the acoustic guitar.”
“We add in the country-rooted lyric storytelling, and I feel like the thing has kind of taken off because it’s different,” Brown said. “It works in a way that’s very different from the same old cookie-cutter [stuff] that you’re hearing every freaking day on Top 40 radio, which I think people are tired of.”
Not all their music is war or military themed, but the pair said their experiences in Iraq are woven into most of the music that they write. They note their experiences are most apparent in their song “Make It Out Alive,” which Brown described as a “warrior’s farewell,” based on internal commitments both War Hippies members made to themselves while in Iraq to improve if they made it home from the war.
“It was based of this promise I made right in the middle of the fight in Iraq, and I just said, “If I make it out of here alive, I’m going to try to be the best man I can possibly be — husband, friend, father,’” Brown said. “So, as songwriters, who happen to have been in war, when we write about that, it’s real. It’s not somebody else’s song we’re singing, and I think, that connects with people — they know that we lived it.”
Both men said through the successes and failures that come with life in the entertainment industry, they’ve learned to give back to their fellow veterans and hope to further their support for such causes through War Hippies. Brown is the co-founder of Base Camp 40, a nonprofit that provides veterans, active-duty service members and the families of fallen troops with all-expenses-paid hunting and fishing trips. Reis works with the nonprofit Special Operators Transition Foundation, which helps special operators translate their military skills into the civilian world after they leave the military.
In addition to their charity work, the War Hippies said they hope to expand their enterprise so they can hire dozens of veterans in the future. Combat veterans, they said, are especially adept to deal with the ups and downs in the entertainment business.
“People are always asking if the music business is tough, and to me, it’s like, ‘Well, nobody’s shooting at us here, like, ain’t nobody dying today,’” Brown said. “Going to war is tough. It’s freaking serious. It made everything after that easy. So, making music, War Hippies, all this is a blessing, and we’re going to pursue it to the absolute best of our ability.”