Mischelle Johnston didn't really think much about the poems she put to song during long hours standing guard in Al Asad, Iraq, in 2004.
She'd start chanting a verse, then fitting in a melody.
"It was very monotonous. You'd get up and go to work, spend 16 hours on post then go home and go to bed and get up the next day and do it all over again. I'd wait until there was no one else around and I'd start to hum. It took me to another place. I'd start to chant 'No rest for the weary, no peace for the worn.' "
Johnston, 23, is beyond modest about her voice. She never sang in front of anyone — even her best friend who served with her in Iraq. So when Johnston was asked to sing with a band when she returned stateside to Miramar Marine Base in San Diego, Calif., her friend was shocked when she heard Johnston's soulful voice.
"When I was in fifth grade I tried out for a part in the State Music Festival as a soloist. When I didn't get the part, and everybody else did, I figured I'm really bad and I just stopped. I became a shower singer."
Her voice and her poetry landed her a spot on a new compilation disc of songs "Voices from the Frontline," with 21 tracks all composed and performed by soldiers from Iraq. Sunday, she'll be at Borders Books, Music and Video from noon to 2 p.m. signing copies of the CD.
The Miles City native is living in Billings with her mom until she starts school at Portland Art Institute in October. She was released from active military duty June 1.
Johnston finds color in the darkest of moments. In Iraq, she volunteered to work the night shift so she could watch the brilliant sunrises and sunsets. The streaks of purple and orange were the only colors in the vast brown desert landscape. In the liner notes on "Voices from the Frontline," she wrote: "My life became 300 shades of brown, 60 pounds of gear and rockets that lit the night sky."
Her seven-month stint in 2004 in Iraq as a corporal in the Marine Corps working inner security for the Tactical Air Command Center brought out her upbeat nature and poetic take on life. Johnston kept a notebook to record her thoughts on the war. She incorporated three poems into her song "Desert Vacation."
"It was maybe an oxymoron," she said of the title. The lyrics speak of her fear and frustration but also show her sense of wonder and humor at life, even at the front.
"Uncle Sam seems to have a different plan from my own. Few months paid vacation to the desert/destination unknown. These long nights/these hot days. Lord send me back home."
She opens the song with a poem about seeing beyond a soldier's camouflage and into his or her individuality.
"Everyone has a life before they came into the military," Johnston said. "We're all someone's daughter or someone's brother, or mother or father. Everyone loses sight of that. They see us as soldiers but we're actually part of a family."
And typical of her optimistic nature, Johnston described her 22nd birthday, flying home from Iraq.
"It was a 35-hour birthday. I was in five countries and two states. We stopped for a few hours in Ireland and I went out for a Guiness and bought gifts for my whole family."
Johnston knew she was different from the time she signed up for early entry into the Marines her senior year at Custer County High School.
"We were at one of our training sessions, sitting around a campfire. We were all saying why we entered the Marines. This guy next to me was like 'I want to be the first in my unit to get a confirmed kill' and I said, 'I want to earn money for college and study interior design so that I can design my coffee shop."'
Johnston said a teacher at her high school encouraged her to enter the military in 2001 to help her learn discipline. It worked, she said.
"Every time I go back to Miles City, I'll bring her flowers and stop by to see her because she knew just what I needed. I never want to look back at my life and say, 'I should have done something' because I have."