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A sister uses her gifts to send messages to fallen soldier

Associated Press logo Associated Press 5/26/2017 By MARTHA IRVINE, AP National Writer
Sonja St. John applies varnish on a violin at her workshop in Neenah, Wis., on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Her brother, Jon St. John, died in Iraq in 2007 while serving in the military. Among other things, Sonja has found solace in her career, making and restoring violins. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger) © The Associated Press Sonja St. John applies varnish on a violin at her workshop in Neenah, Wis., on Thursday, April 27, 2017. Her brother, Jon St. John, died in Iraq in 2007 while serving in the military. Among other things, Sonja has found solace in her career, making and restoring violins. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger)

NEENAH, Wis. (AP) — She begins each time by sharpening her tools, with the sound of metal on metal echoing through the sunlit old house she calls both home and workshop. Making a violin is a methodical art. For Sonja St. John, that structure is a necessity — and the routine, in many ways, a saving grace.

A photo of siblings Jon and Sonja St. John sits in Sonja's Neenah, Wis., home on Monday, May 8, 2017. Jon St. John, a specialist in the Army, died decade ago in Iraq when the military vehicle he was in hit a roadside bomb. He was 25. The photo is Sonja's favorite of the two of them. It was taken after he brought her flowers at one of her violin recitals. "He was a good friend to have," she says. The photo includes the flag that had been draped over Jon's casket during his military funeral. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine) © The Associated Press A photo of siblings Jon and Sonja St. John sits in Sonja's Neenah, Wis., home on Monday, May 8, 2017. Jon St. John, a specialist in the Army, died decade ago in Iraq when the military vehicle he was in hit a roadside bomb. He was 25. The photo is Sonja's favorite of the two of them. It was taken after he brought her flowers at one of her violin recitals. "He was a good friend to have," she says. The photo includes the flag that had been draped over Jon's casket during his military funeral. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

"It's a way to stay on track even when chaos can be happening right outside," she says.

Sonja St. John inserts a note in one of her handmade violins at her workshop in Neenah, Wis., on Thursday, April 27, 2017. The message reads, "In honor of past, present and future souls of courage and wisdom." St. John writes a different message for each violin she makes, always keeping her brother, Jon St. John, and other veterans in mind. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger) © The Associated Press Sonja St. John inserts a note in one of her handmade violins at her workshop in Neenah, Wis., on Thursday, April 27, 2017. The message reads, "In honor of past, present and future souls of courage and wisdom." St. John writes a different message for each violin she makes, always keeping her brother, Jon St. John, and other veterans in mind. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger)

She finishes each new violin with another ritual, by gluing a small, handwritten message inside. This began as a light gesture, with favorite fortunes from cookies placed inside with a wink as hidden signatures of sorts from her, the violin maker. But the notes she leaves now have become far more personal and meaningful.

A message written by Sonja St. John is seen inside one of her handmade violins at her workshop in Neenah, Wis., on Thursday, April 27, 2017. The message reads, "In honor of past, present and future souls of courage and wisdom." St. John writes a different message for each violin she makes, always keeping her brother, Jon St. John, and other veterans in mind. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger) © The Associated Press A message written by Sonja St. John is seen inside one of her handmade violins at her workshop in Neenah, Wis., on Thursday, April 27, 2017. The message reads, "In honor of past, present and future souls of courage and wisdom." St. John writes a different message for each violin she makes, always keeping her brother, Jon St. John, and other veterans in mind. (AP Photo/Carrie Antlfinger)

Each is different, but they are often a tribute to those who've given of themselves in some way, members of the military included. Her most recent one reads: "In honor of past, present and future souls of courage and wisdom."

Sonja St. John sits in her workshop in her Neenah, Wis., home on Monday, May 8, 2017. Her brother, Jon St. John, died decade ago in the war in Iraq. Sonja has found solace in her career, making and restoring violins and also recently played violin on a song for her brother. It was written from her journal entries with the help of a nonprofit arts project for veterans called Warrior Songs. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine) © The Associated Press Sonja St. John sits in her workshop in her Neenah, Wis., home on Monday, May 8, 2017. Her brother, Jon St. John, died decade ago in the war in Iraq. Sonja has found solace in her career, making and restoring violins and also recently played violin on a song for her brother. It was written from her journal entries with the help of a nonprofit arts project for veterans called Warrior Songs. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

The person foremost on her mind when she writes those messages is her brother, Jon St. John, an Army specialist who died a decade ago when a roadside bomb exploded near the military vehicle in which he was the gunner.

Violins hang in the workshop in Sonja St. John's Neenah, Wis., home on Monday, May 8, 2017. Her brother, Jon St. John died in 2007 in the Iraq war. Among other things, Sonja has found solace in her career, making and restoring violins. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine) © The Associated Press Violins hang in the workshop in Sonja St. John's Neenah, Wis., home on Monday, May 8, 2017. Her brother, Jon St. John died in 2007 in the Iraq war. Among other things, Sonja has found solace in her career, making and restoring violins. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

Jon, Sonja's only sibling, was 25. She was 22 and just beginning her career after graduating from the Chicago School of Violin Making. She has a vivid memory of sliding to her kitchen floor, her back against the cupboards, when her parents shared the news in a phone call.

This early 1990s family photo shows Sonja St. John, left; her mother, Kay St. John; father, Jon St. John Sr., and brother, Jon St. John II, at their home in Neenah, Wis. Her brother died in Iraq on Jan. 27, 2017, while serving in the Army. He was 25. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine) © The Associated Press This early 1990s family photo shows Sonja St. John, left; her mother, Kay St. John; father, Jon St. John Sr., and brother, Jon St. John II, at their home in Neenah, Wis. Her brother died in Iraq on Jan. 27, 2017, while serving in the Army. He was 25. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

This was her big brother, her fishing buddy and protector, tall and strong-willed but also kind in sometimes surprising ways. Her favorite photo of the two of them together was taken at one of her violin recitals in 2002. He'd come home from college, wearing what she figures was probably his nicest sweater, and brought her flowers.

Sonja St. John plays violin during a recording session on Saturday, May 13, 2017, at SurroundinSoundStudio in Wauwatosa, Wis. Sonja's brother, Jon St. John, died decade ago in the war in Iraq. She placed a photo of him on a nearby music stand for inspiration to help her get through the recording session. The song will be part of a second album released by Warrior Songs, a nonprofit arts organization for veterans. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine) © The Associated Press Sonja St. John plays violin during a recording session on Saturday, May 13, 2017, at SurroundinSoundStudio in Wauwatosa, Wis. Sonja's brother, Jon St. John, died decade ago in the war in Iraq. She placed a photo of him on a nearby music stand for inspiration to help her get through the recording session. The song will be part of a second album released by Warrior Songs, a nonprofit arts organization for veterans. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

"He was just always a good friend to have around," she said, noting how music had always been a bonding point for them. He'd teach her about his favorite rock bands. She introduced him to jazz violin.

Sonja St. John plays violin during a recording session on Saturday, May 13, 2017, at SurroundinSoundStudio in Wauwatosa, Wis. Sonja's brother, Jon St. John, died decade ago in the war in Iraq. She placed a photo of him on a nearby music stand for inspiration to help her get through the recording session. The song will be part of a second album released by Warrior Songs, a nonprofit arts organization for veterans. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine) © The Associated Press Sonja St. John plays violin during a recording session on Saturday, May 13, 2017, at SurroundinSoundStudio in Wauwatosa, Wis. Sonja's brother, Jon St. John, died decade ago in the war in Iraq. She placed a photo of him on a nearby music stand for inspiration to help her get through the recording session. The song will be part of a second album released by Warrior Songs, a nonprofit arts organization for veterans. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)
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But in the years after his death, Sonja stopped playing, as grief enveloped her.

Kay and Jon St. John Sr. listen as their daughter, Sonja St. John, plays violin during a recording session on Saturday, May 13, 2017, at Surround In Sound Studio in Wauwatosa, Wis. Their son, Jon St. John II, died decade ago in the war in Iraq. She placed a photo of him on a nearby music stand for inspiration to help her get through the recording session. The song will be part of a second album released by Warrior Songs, a nonprofit arts organization for veterans. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine) © The Associated Press Kay and Jon St. John Sr. listen as their daughter, Sonja St. John, plays violin during a recording session on Saturday, May 13, 2017, at Surround In Sound Studio in Wauwatosa, Wis. Their son, Jon St. John II, died decade ago in the war in Iraq. She placed a photo of him on a nearby music stand for inspiration to help her get through the recording session. The song will be part of a second album released by Warrior Songs, a nonprofit arts organization for veterans. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

She got married in 2008 and divorced seven years later. After moving back to Neenah, her Wisconsin hometown, to be near her parents, she increasingly tried to drown that grief with alcohol, so much so that she checked into rehab more than once.

Jason Moon hugs Sonja St. John after a recording session on Saturday, May 13, 2017, at SurroundinSoundStudio in Wauwatosa, Wis. Sonja's brother, Jon St. John, died decade ago in the war in Iraq. Sonja has found solace in her career, making and restoring violins and also recently played violin on a song for her brother. It was written from her journal entries with the help of a nonprofit arts project for veterans called Warrior Songs, which was founded by Moon, who is also a veteran of the Iraq war. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine) © The Associated Press Jason Moon hugs Sonja St. John after a recording session on Saturday, May 13, 2017, at SurroundinSoundStudio in Wauwatosa, Wis. Sonja's brother, Jon St. John, died decade ago in the war in Iraq. Sonja has found solace in her career, making and restoring violins and also recently played violin on a song for her brother. It was written from her journal entries with the help of a nonprofit arts project for veterans called Warrior Songs, which was founded by Moon, who is also a veteran of the Iraq war. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

"I was very sick for quite a long time," she said.

A copy of the lyrics of the song "Star in the Dark" sits on a music stand during a recording session on Saturday, May 13, 2017, at SurroundinSoundStudio in Wauwatosa, Wis. Songwriter Kevin Welsh wrote the song using journal entries and a recorded interview with Sonja St. John, whose brother, Jon St. John, died decade ago in the war in Iraq. The song, which will be released over Memorial Day weekend, will be part of a second album released by Warrior Songs, a nonprofit arts organization for veterans. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine) © The Associated Press A copy of the lyrics of the song "Star in the Dark" sits on a music stand during a recording session on Saturday, May 13, 2017, at SurroundinSoundStudio in Wauwatosa, Wis. Songwriter Kevin Welsh wrote the song using journal entries and a recorded interview with Sonja St. John, whose brother, Jon St. John, died decade ago in the war in Iraq. The song, which will be released over Memorial Day weekend, will be part of a second album released by Warrior Songs, a nonprofit arts organization for veterans. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

Her grandmother had died of heart problems shortly after Jon's death but, as Sonja saw it, she really died of heartache. Truth was, her own heart also had been broken for years.

Sonja St. John sits in her Neenah, Wis., home on Monday, May 8, 2017, next to a window with a military service flag. The flag honors her brother, Jon St. John, who died in Iraq on Jan. 27, 2017, while serving in the Army. He was 25. Sonja, his only sibling, has struggled mightily since his death but has found solace in her career, making and restoring violins. She also recently played violin on a song for her brother. It was written from her journal entries with the help of a nonprofit arts project for veterans called Warrior Songs. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine) © The Associated Press Sonja St. John sits in her Neenah, Wis., home on Monday, May 8, 2017, next to a window with a military service flag. The flag honors her brother, Jon St. John, who died in Iraq on Jan. 27, 2017, while serving in the Army. He was 25. Sonja, his only sibling, has struggled mightily since his death but has found solace in her career, making and restoring violins. She also recently played violin on a song for her brother. It was written from her journal entries with the help of a nonprofit arts project for veterans called Warrior Songs. (AP Photo/Martha Irvine)

Then, last fall, she received a note from Jason Moon, a musician and himself an Iraq war veteran whom she'd first met as a teenager, when they played music together. Moon had had his own struggles, with PTSD, after coming home from the war. He hadn't been able to offer much support when Jon died, he said, but things had changed for him in recent years.

Now the head of a nonprofit arts organization for veterans, called Warrior Songs, Moon asked Sonja if she'd be interested in helping create a song for his group's second album. This one will focus on telling the stories of women in combat, as well as the mothers, wives and sisters who've lost loved ones to war.

The Warrior Songs CDs are given free of charge to veterans and are intended to be a source of support and healing.

In honoring Jon — and telling her own story — Sonja, now 33, also saw a chance to move forward and to stay sober.

"I just really woke up when I realized I know that my brother was willing to die for me and our country," she said. "I better be willing to live and take advantage of what I DO have."

She agreed to play a violin solo for the song and soon began practicing again.

She also began building a new violin, work she'd set aside to focus on instrument repair.

This winter, Moon recorded an interview with Sonja, and she gave him some of her journal entries. He then shared those materials with songwriter Kevin Welsh, who wrote the resulting song, titled "Star in the Dark."

"Hey brother, where you gone?" the song begins.

"It's been too long since you've been home.

"They called it 'casualty.'

"It doesn't seem casual to me."

This month, Sonja recorded the violin accompaniment for the song at a studio in suburban Milwaukee. Her parents, Kay and Jon Sr., were there, too. They recalled the son who, in 2005, showed up with Army brochures to tell them he'd be leaving in 36 hours for basic training at Fort Hood, Texas.

"You know there's a war going on?" his mother recalled saying to him.

"Yes, I do," he said with a determined look. Though worried, his parents gave him their full support.

Now their daughter is the major focus.

"Who knew what kind of healing would come from this process?" Moon said of Sonja's personal journey in helping create the song, which is being released this weekend on the Warrior Songs website.

Still, it was clear that she was nervous. She'd never played in a recording studio before and was still feeling rusty.

To help keep her calm, she placed photos of Jon on a nearby music stand. Then she played a solo that would, like the song itself, become a message of another kind, much more public than those slips of paper hidden inside a violin that may never be seen.

As she finished, audio engineer Jonathon Leubner smiled. "That's lovely," he said. "I can't thank you enough."

"Well," she replied through a studio microphone, "let's all thank my brother."

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