LEWISTON — Jim Merrill is a busy man. After retiring from the Air Force, he spent 12 years working at Tri-County Mental Health Services before being hired at Facing Change, a family counseling, substance abuse and mental health agency in Lewiston.
He spends one day a week at Mountain Valley High School as an affiliate of Sweetser Services, working with students. He jokes that he had once thought about retiring but found he didn't have the time.
It's hard to imagine someone so busy finding the time to write and record a song for his fellow veterans, but Merrill said his song, “Peace,” was something worth pursuing.
“I've written other songs before, but the song I wrote about the veterans is the only one that ever felt right,” Merrill said.
“Peace” features only Merrill's soft voice singing over a few gently strummed guitar chords, with lyrics that state, “Peace is the answer, no matter where you go/and war is not a solution, don't you know/that it's peace.” There are shades of John Denver and Simon and Garfunkel in “Peace,” which Merrill cites as some of his musical influences.
Merrill said he first wrote the song in the early '80s as a means to recover from the survivor's guilt he suffered upon returning from Vietnam.
“I served in Vietnam from July 1966 to July 1967, and like so many others returning from the war I had some serious issues,” Merrill said. “I was drinking a lot, and for a while I was in a bad place.”
It wasn't until December 2012 that Merrill's song resurfaced at Camp Kieve in Nobleboro, near Damariscotta Lake. Merrill said that prior to December, the song had “been put in mothballs and forgotten about.”
“I attended the veterans camp at Camp Kieve and brought out my guitar to play the song to my fellow veterans,” Merrill said. “There were veterans there from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, and when I played the song, I could see the emotion in their faces. They loved the song and encouraged me to do something with it.”
Shortly after playing the song at Camp Kieve, Merrill approached friend and fellow musician Brian Patricks about possibly recording the song. Patricks said he would be honored to do so.
“He has a son who served in Afghanistan and has since returned,” Merrill said. “Brian knows all the ins and outs of music and video production, and he ended up recording it for me.”
On March 20, Patricks uploaded a video to YouTube of Merrill singing “Peace.” The video, which consists of Merrill performing his song alone in a studio, also contains video footage of soldiers fighting in Vietnam. Patricks includes pictures of Merrill's friends in the video and ends it with a picture of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and the name “Leon Poland Jr.” circled.
According to Merrill, Poland Jr. was a Bryant Pond and Woodstock resident with whom he served. Poland Jr. was killed one morning in March 1967 while on patrol in the jungle, assigned to defend a vital radar site overlooking China Beach. Merrill said he is still friends with Poland Jr.'s sister, Hazel Cole.
“I try and stop by Leon's grave from time to time in Bryant Pond,” Merrill said. “I just spend a little time there, thinking back and remembering him.”
As of Memorial Day weekend, the video has more than 500 views, with YouTube users offering praise and positive feedback.
“My purpose in bringing the song back and recording it was to 'play it forward,'” Merrill said, referring to “Pay it Forward,” the 2000 film about a boy who starts a movement where people who had a good deed done to them “pay it forward” by doing three good deeds for other people.
“Instead of paying it forward like they do in the movie, my intent was to 'play it forward,'” Merrill continued. “I want to get as many people as I can to spread the word of peace. I think we need it more than anything right now.”
Merrill served in Vietnam at a military base in Da Nang, on top of Son Tra Mountain, known as Monkey Mountain to American troops. He said while serving in Vietnam he heard that his favorite actor, James Stewart, who was also an Air Force Reserves brigadier general, had been flown to Vietnam and was camped out in a bunker at the bottom of Monkey Mountain.
“I wanted to ditch my post to meet him,” Merrill laughed. “Of course, I could not abandon my post in the bunker, so I never got the opportunity to meet my favorite actor.”
In 1990, Merrill saw a Reader's Digest essay Stewart had written about his experiences making the movie “It's A Wonderful Life”and decided to submit a letter to the editor that told the story of how he had nearly met Stewart in Vietnam and how disappointed he was that their paths never crossed.
The editor of Reader's Digest wrote back to Merrill, saying that his words had touched her. She suggested that he write a letter to Stewart, which she would try to forward to him.
A month later, Merrill said he received a letter from Beverly Hills, Calif. It was from Stewart.
“I couldn't believe it,” Merrill said with a smile. “I had goosebumps crawling over me when I saw that. He even started the letter by writing, 'Dear James Merrill,' and went to say how he remembered the trip to Vietnam and that he was very touched by my letter to him. I have the letter in a very safe and special place.
“Every time I see 'It's a Wonderful Life' at Christmastime, I think about James Stewart and how he gave us such a wonderful life with his wonderful acting,” Merrill added.
Merrill said he has met many people over the years who remind him of the importance of being humble and why supporting veterans is so important.
“I was at Togus when I ran into a young man in a wheelchair waiting for the elevator,” Merrill began, “and he was being pushed by his wife or girlfriend. I looked down at him and saw he had no legs. His legs were gone. I walked up to him with tears in my eyes and said, 'Thank you for your service.' He looked up at me and saw my Vietnam veterans cap.
“'No, thank you for your service,' he said back to me. What a humbling experience it was,” Merrill continued. “I came back with all my body parts, and for him to thank me like that was incredible to me.”
Merrill said that his song is dedicated to everyone who served in the military, as well as the family members of those who served.
“My song is dedicated to so many people,” Merrill said. “My wife, Judy, who was always supportive of me and the song and all my children and stepchildren. It's dedicated to Larry McClane, a friend of mine in Rumford, and his son, Buddy, who was killed while serving overseas. It's dedicated to Hazel Cole, who was Leon Poland Jr.'s sister.”
Merrill later added that he also dedicated his song to Bill Malay, a counselor from the Lewiston Veterans Office.
“Bill was there for me when I was struggling with my issues,” Merrill said. “We were both in Vietnam at the same and didn't even know it. I was on top of the mountain, and he was at the bottom.”
Although Merrill said he does not expect the video to reach a countrywide audience, he made an effort to get his song to the producers of the Ellen DeGeneres talk show in May while visiting his daughter in California.
“I walked into a Taco Bell, which was right across from the studio where the 'Ellen DeGeneres Show' is filmed,” Merrill said. “I had a copy of my song on me, and I thought, 'What do I have to lose?' I walked over to the guard, and he was incredibly nice. I told him I wrote a song for the veterans and that I'd like to try to get it to the people who put songs on Ellen. He listened to the song and told me it sounded good and that he'd try to get it to the right people.”
Regardless of the positive feedback, Merrill remains humble and appreciative of the kind words people have offered.
“I had a friend who recently told me, 'Be humble, but be proud,'” Merrill said. “All I want is to be able to share the song with those who served in the military and their family members, and for them to pass the message of peace along by playing it forward.”