John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting joins the podcast to discuss his new web docuseries titled “Meet The Heroes.” We discuss the censorship he’s experienced for being outspoken on the Afghanistan withdrawal and what the effort to silence people means for society. Finally, we consider why more musicians, entertainers, and artists aren’t speaking out about the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
John Ondrasik is a songwriter, producer, and performer better known as Five for Fighting. His collection of heartfelt songs have found their place in The Great American Songbook and continue to stand the test of time. Selling over 2.5 million albums, including the platinum America Town and The Battle For Everything. “Superman,” the worldwide hit single, went Platinum and became an anthem for the heroes of 9-11. His standard “100 Years” went 2X Platinum, and continues to give every age group a lifetime’s moment of reflection and nostalgia.
And welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you’re allowed to think yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Hallberg. On today’s episode, John Ondrasik of Five for Fighting joins us to discuss his new web docuseries, titled “Meet the Heroes.” We’ll also discuss the censorship he’s experienced for being outspoken on the Afghanistan withdrawal and what he thinks the effort to silence people means for society.
You may know the name, John Ondrasik, because he has been on Fox News and other outlets quite a bit talking about this issue, but he is also a songwriter, producer, and performer better known as Five for Fighting. His collection of heartfelt songs have found their place in the great American songbook and continue to stand the test of time, selling over 2.5 million albums including the platinum “America Town” and the “Battle for Everything.”
His worldwide single, “Superman,” went platinum and became an anthem for the heroes of 9/11 and his standard “100 Years” went two times platinum and continues to give every age group a lifetime moment of reflection and nostalgia. John, it is a pleasure to have you on She Thinks today.
Thanks, Beverly. Nice to be with you. Thanks for that kind introduction.
We are going to get into the censorship you have faced, we’re going to get into your docuseries, but I felt that since you were willing to serenade us a little bit today, we could start off by remembering one of your great hits. Do you mind, as we begin the conversation, play a little for us.
There’s an oldie but a goodie.
Oldie but of goodie. I have listened to your music over the years and something I have appreciated is that you’re very good on the keys. I played the piano growing up, majored in college. I loved your music. Thank you for sharing your gift and talent with us even via guitar today.
Thank you for that. Just to let everybody know, you are also going to be playing another song at the end of our podcast today, so they definitely should stay tuned for that. I just want to get into the big segue, which is how do you go from music to getting into this political arena, producing a music video that gets banned from YouTube for a little while. It has been reinstated. We’ll talk about that. What has this transition been like for you?
It’s certainly been surreal. I had no intention of writing a song. I’m not a person who gets political or talks about my politics with my music, but it was very personal for me, Beverly, when the Afghanistan debacle first took place. The day after our soldiers left, I got a call from a friend and she needed a contact. I said, “Okay, what’s going on?” And she said words, I’ll never forget. She said, “I’m organizing evacuations of American citizens from Afghanistan.” There was just silence on the line. My friend, you should have her on this podcast, she is one of the most incredible people in the world, does incredible humanitarian work for decades in Africa. I said to her, “You’re risking your life to go rescue the people we left behind?” And she said, “Yes.” I started writing a song that night as a cathartic exercise.
I was so angry and the song finished itself when the President gave his extraordinary success speech. That scared me. It was so Orwellian. I was hoping that General Milley and Austin would come out and clarify that extraordinary success, but when they didn’t, I realized it was a political exercise. It scared me for the things to come, and we’re experiencing some of those as we speak.
That’s what really was the kind of impetus for the song and then when I saw the reaction from our veterans, I felt it was important to have one statement from a songwriter in the tradition of the protest songs of the sixties and seventies of images and commentary. That’s where the video came from. To have at least one historical statement from one artist talking about this generational moral shame that we’ve committed in Afghanistan.
That song is called “Blood on My Hands.” This is a video that was posted on YouTube and then YouTube, for a time, took the video down. What reason did you get from YouTube on why they took down the video?
It was very interesting. They took down the video, they said for graphic images, but the rest of the story is, they’d already vetted the video. They put an age restriction on the video when they initially posted it, which I appreciated. I put a graphic warning card before my video because I had to show Taliban atrocities, that’s what’s happening. So the fact that YouTube only took it down after it started to resonate and maybe get some tweets from some Senators was very suspicious. And you’re right, over a day or so, they initially apologized and they put it back up. But that I think was only because of the outcry from folks like you and your organization, who actually was very helpful in demanding they put the video back up.
But again, I think it’s just another example of censorship to one worldview. The fact that many artists don’t have people with millions of followers on Twitter demanding YouTube put their video back up, I think speaks to the culture at large.
It goes way beyond my song. We’ll never know if YouTube took it down for political reasons, but I’ll tell you what I do know is the reaction to it. I got more requests from Russia propaganda media than the mainstream media, entertainment media, music media, like Rolling Stone, wanting to talk about free expression and whether you like my song or not that we have this ability and this right to speak to power.
The fact that that occurred is even more chilling than YouTube to me and I think speaks to a big problem in our culture.
One of the things that I think is just interesting about the reasoning that YouTube gave you for taking down that video, they talked about the graphic images. You are correct. There are graphic images that are shown because it’s depicting the atrocities that took place and are taking place in Afghanistan. But, don’t other videos have these types of images. Yours is not the only one that shows us. Have you seen other videos, whether it’s a music video or just more B-roll style videos, have these types of images with no content warning whatsoever?
Well, you’re right. The first thing I did when they took it down is I Googled YouTube Taliban atrocities. Within five minutes I found a dozen videos that had images much worse than mine. Some with faces not blurred out and YouTube was monetizing those. Again, I think the more you look at it, it’s censorship of one worldview. Again, it’s not the first time. It won’t be the last time.
We can sit and whine about it or we can just power through it. And that’s my plan. I’ll go above, around or through them because this Afghanistan issue speaks to who we are as a nation. I think it’s not going away. It’s a moral crisis, humanitarian crisis, natural security crisis. I’m happy to see that the video, as well as other folks speaking up, has kind of kept Afghanistan on the front foot.
Because, just before this call, I was on a Zoom with an organization evacuating American citizens, evacuating allies, evacuating gay and lesbian people, female judges. So the positive side of this nightmare is there are people keeping the promise. I look at them and I say, that’s who America is. This administration will be gone but those people are who America is, and that gives me hope every day.
I’m wondering if we have come to the point where maybe the tide is turning a little bit, where this silencing of people, being called names if you don’t stay quiet, whatever happens to be, that it’s getting to the point where enough people are fed up.
Of course, most recently we’ve seen what has happened to Joe Rogan and people trying to censor him just by interviewing people with different perspectives, just by wanting to have a conversation. Do you think that we are getting to the point in time where people are becoming more bold to speak up?
You, for example, who are saying, “Look, they’re going to try to silence me, but the reality is the American people want to have productive debate and discourse and they think that is the way to find true information.”
You see examples of that in the culture. I think Youngkin winning in Virginia, with mothers speaking up saying, “I’m not going to accept that you’re teaching my children that they’re born racist.” I think people that maybe a couple years ago would’ve hesitated are starting to. You still see very few people in the arts speak out. Even with my video, only one person, John Rich, came to my support.
But I do think that that’s true. With every voice, whether it’s a songwriter, whether it’s a podcast, whether it’s somebody in a PTA meeting, standing up and saying, “You know what? I don’t think this is right and I don’t care what names you call me. I’m going to speak my mind because it’s too serious.” Afghanistan, I think, is a mirror to our country. I think it transcends so many other issues that we talk about on the podcast and abortion, immigration taxes, inflation. Afghanistan is who we are as a nation.
Are we Normandy? Are we the folks that brought down the Berlin wall or are we a nation that abandons our citizens and allies to terrorists? I think there’s a reason the President’s poll numbers have not recovered. It really started with Afghanistan. I think in our gut, I don’t care what your politics are, I’ve said from the beginning, if Donald Trump were President I’d write the same song, only the names would change. In our gut, we know this moral stain that we’ve created and that women are being murdered, children are being sold for food. So I think this Afghanistan thing transcends a lot of this stuff.
So when you have these really critical issues, I think people are like, “Forget it. I’m going to speak up whatever the consequences.” I’ll tell you the only thing that made me hesitate to release this song was my daughter. I’m very lucky to be surrounded by incredibly independent women, strong women in my life, from my grandmother to my mother, certainly my wife, but my daughter is at a very liberal school.
I went to her and I said, “Look, this song’s going to come out. It’s not a political song but it’ll be perceived that way and you may get some blow back from some of your teachers and your colleagues.” I was just so proud when she said, “Dad, if folks want to give me a bad grade or not be my friend because you’re speaking this truth about people that we’ve left behind, I don’t want to be their friend and I don’t care about my grade.” That was the one thing that I was a little concerned about but once she gave me the go ahead, it was full steam ahead.
That’s wonderful. Out of curiosity, what has been the response from your fans to this video?
To be honest with you, we live in a political world and it’s the only thing that saddens me is I know people have a relationship with certain songs of mine. I have relationships with songs when I was a kid that mean a lot to me. When they’re perceived as political and I’m criticizing a side, there are people who are angry and upset. I understand that. Frankly, if I’d written it about a Republican, the same people that are loving me would be hating me and the same people hating me would be loving me.
I just understand that’s the world we live in. But I have to say what I believe. The tradition of protest songs in the sixties and seventies, you listen to those songs, you listen to Marvin Gay, you listen to Credence Clearwater Revival. You listen, Neil Young, and you have a sense of the history of the times.
We need those songs. It’s a way to kind of mark history through music. Again, I’m one songwriter with a couple songs that folks know from 20 years ago. I just wish there was a lot more folks having these conversations because you got it right. I’m not saying I’m right, I’m wrong, but we have to have the conversation. Neil Young wanted to shut down Joe Rogan and the media, and Jen Psaki just basically saying, “Yeah, you need to censor him more.”
That is a chilling, chilling state for our country. How can we move forward if we can’t even have the conversation? I know you guys deal with that a lot and you guys do a great job with all of your members standing up to that.
Yeah, we believe in the freedom of association, the freedom of speech and as I like to tell people who think that we shouldn’t let bad ideas fester or be discussed, I think the best way to expose things that aren’t true, the best way to get rid of bad ideas, is to actually bring them to the light and people have discussions.
We shouldn’t be afraid of discussion. We should be encouraging it. I want to move now to, the main reason we’re having you here today, which is to talk about a new web docuseries that you’re releasing called “Meet the Heroes.” This is going to feature you interviewing heroic Americans who are involved in rescuing and evacuating American citizens, SIV holders, green card holders, persons at high risk in Afghanistan. Tell me about the origins of this docuseries, where people can find it and what they can expect from it.
After the song came out, I started getting thousands of emails from veterans basically saying thank you for speaking my pain. Along with that, I started getting these emails from people trapped in Afghanistan. How surreal is that that we live in a world where some songwriter is getting emails because the State Department will not get out our citizens or people we’ve promised to protect?
I didn’t know what to do. I had some friends, I started looking around, and eventually I became embedded with Project Exodus Relief, which is one of these incredible organizations. I started talking to Scott Mann at Pineapple, Zach Nunn at Argo. I became embedded with many of these organizations. I do their Zoom calls every week. The first couple times, I almost cried because we had the Zoom call and everybody’s in their little box. It’s spouses, it’s friends, it’s veterans. One person’s like, “Oh, I got to go pick up my kids from soccer. Oh, but wait, we got to do this evac tomorrow. We have this SIV holder.”
They’re organizing these sophisticated operations while they’re just living their lives. Sometimes they’re driving carpool. But they’re keeping the promise and I see it every day. it gave me so much hope. A lot of these folks, they come from special forces, they’re not used to being in the public eye, they don’t like the public eye. I kept saying, “I wish America could see this. I wish America could see these people doing this, know their faces, hear their rants, see them cry, see them celebrate when they get somebody out.”
I think America would have a different sense of what’s happening. When we talk about Afghanistan, we just feel this shame but we should also feel this incredible pride for these folks. I said, “Well, no one else is doing it maybe I’ll just interview them and put them out and people can, and meet them.”
The first one I did with Congressman Mike Waltz because when I was looking for folks to help get people out, I called his office and they got people out. He was a guy who basically, literally, with me and some other folks saved American citizen’s lives. He’s a good place to start but most of the folks you’ll meet are people nobody knows. I want people to know them, see their faces, figure out why they do this, because that’s what fascinates me.
We got another one coming next week and we’ll be dropping one or two every month. I hope folks find some time to really meet these heroes. I think it’ll make us all feel better about ourselves.
In these interviews that you do, do you think that there is an overwhelming consensus that those who realize we need to do this in a private form, we can’t rely on the State Department or the government to get these people out, do you think that there is a common sense, first of all, of shock at that, and then an immense intensity, as far as, I need to take this on myself to do it myself?
I think all of us as Americans, when I heard that we were leaving people behind, was just stunning to me and I couldn’t process that.
Shock is one word. Anger, depression, frustration. The fact that they, and many of them veterans, feel that they have to risk their lives, risk their treasure, quit their jobs, basically not sleep for four months, to go rescue their fellow soldiers and maybe save their lives, there’s great anger at General Austin, General Milley, the President.
The fact that there’s been zero accountability makes them crazy. They say, “If we make a mistake in the field, we are certainly held accountable.” So there’s great anger. At the same time, they’re soldiers and they will run through a wall. They said exactly what you said. They said, “Look, if nobody else is going to do it, who’s going to do it? So we’re going to do it.” And they still do it. But it’s hard. Resources are slim. It costs $5,000 to $10,000 to get one person out.
The State Department’s not only not helping, they’ve been hindering many of these efforts, which is, I think even a greater shame than the withdrawal itself. The withdrawal was chaos. We made horrible moves. But after the fact, even a year later, for the State Department to be hindering many of these organizations is unfathomable.
That story will be told as well, but they keep powering, flights are going off again, people are getting out again. But you’re right. They don’t understand. You saw the suicide hotlines go crazy after Afghanistan. The PTSD is still there but we have other efforts for them. I’m actually working with a colleague of yours, Meaghan Mobbs, and some other folks from Save Our Allies, Sarah Verardo, and we’re doing things. We’re putting together a concert for Afghan veterans because they need to know that their sacrifice was not in vain. We’re going to celebrate the allies, our Afghan allies, and we’re going to recognize these heroic groups that are keeping the promise. We have a lot of things in store for them. Our veterans are the best. We love them. They’re hurting and we have their back.
Do you think that the veterans that you speak to know that Americans have their back? Do they feel that?
I think they feel… I think they look at the media and nobody’s talking about Afghanistan. I think they feel the media does not have their back. I think they feel the politicians do not have their back. Sadly, I think they feel the generals do not have their back, which is very hard for them to take.
I do think they feel America, and Americans understand what they’re going through. I think you’ll see Afghanistan continue to be talked about. Just today, on the Hill, there’s more policy coming. There’s more investigations coming. This is a bipartisan effort. I got to give credit to Senator Blumenthal, Senator Shaheen, Joni Ernst who I talk to weekly. Tillis, go down the list.
The Senators in this country understand Afghanistan and they are taking action. I think that gives our troops some solace, but they will never be able to have closure until there is accountability, which to this point there has been none.
I think something like “Meet the Heroes” as a great start. I know you released the first episode at the beginning of this month, beginning of February, but for that episode and more, where can people go to see this docuseries?
It’s on YouTube. It’s also on Rumble in case YouTube takes it down. You can just go to my website fiveforfighting.com. You can go on YouTube, Google “Meet the Heroes,” on Twitter you can follow me @johnondrasik.
If you just go on Rumble or YouTube, Google “Meet the Heroes,” we’ll be dropping another episode in a few days and just check back every couple weeks and please share it. I think again, it gives everybody a sense of pride, and they are truly heroic and I’m proud to be able to introduce them to as many folks who care to watch.
I think it’s encouraging to us Americans who also are horrified by what took place in Afghanistan. This Trump’s politics, I don’t think there’s a political divide. I think all Americans watching it, even if they agreed with a withdrawal, thought that the way it happened was so problematic and just horrific.
We appreciate your work and to expose that. As we close out today, you have agreed to play a portion of “Blood on My Hands.” I’m going to turn it over to you to give people a little taste of an uncensored version, we will not censor this song, to give a little bit of that before we say our final goodbye. John, take it away.
John Ondrasik, thank you so much for helping us connect emotion with the music. Music does just help so much and so we appreciate all that you’re doing and for joining us on She Thinks today. Thank you.
Thanks for having me, Beverly.
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