Keni Thomas is a pretty soft-spoken guy with a slight southern twang in his voice, but he gets fired up talking about some of the music, specifically the lyrics, coming out of Nashville.
"I listen to some of the artists, and some of them are doing great things," he says. "But others I say, 'Are you kidding me? You have a chance to stand in front of thousands of people, and this is what you want to say?' Man, you've been given a gift, and you have to do something with it."
That commitment to living a purpose-filled life was seared into Thomas' soul on Oct. 3, 1993. That Sunday afternoon, a shout of "Get it on" rang throughout an Army Rangers compound in Somalia, and minutes later a mission was launched by 150 Rangers and Special Forces soldiers into the center of Mogadishu in a bid to capture renegade warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid.
By the next day, 18 soldiers, including six men in Thomas' Rangers unit, had been killed. The battle was later depicted in the book and movie, Black Hawk Down.
"After it was over, you just kind of spend your time thanking the guys that were on your left and your right because that's why I'm here now," Thomas says. "It's like in the movie Saving Private Ryan, at the end when the battle is over, Tom Hanks' character tells Matt Damon's character to 'earn this' just before he dies. You have to make a difference. I kind of owe it to the guys that we had to pull out of there."
What Thomas, a native of Columbus, Ga., is doing is shining the spotlight on the military through his country music career. His debut album, "Flag of Our Fathers: A Soldier's Story," has been released by Moraine Records, and it contains 10 cuts, all written by Thomas. Each song deals with struggles and circumstances faced by a soldier. Part of the proceeds from each album go to the Hero Fund and the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provide scholarships to the children of special operations soldiers killed in action or training.
"I'm proud of how it turned out," Thomas says of the album, which was originally supposed to be a typical country album but evolved into a tribute. "You've got guys playing it in their Humvees while on patrol in Fallujah [Iraq]."
After spending almost seven years with the Rangers, Thomas decided to try his luck in Nashville. That dream had just about fizzled, and he was considering a civilian contractor job in Iraq, when he got a call from a buddy he'd fought with in Somalia.
"Jeff Struecker, who's a chaplain now, called me out of the blue. He said 'You're doing a good thing. Your songs that I play for my men, they mean something to them. I think you can do more good with your guitar than with your gun.'"
He remains grounded in the fact that he's providing comfort for those fighting overseas.
"I'll go to my Web site, and I'll see a letter from a soldier's family, thanking me for what I'm doing, or I'll get a letter from a soldier. Most people want to go through life knowing they're making a difference. ... With what I'm doing, I know that I have a purpose."