FORT CHAFFEE, Ark. – Tucked away in a small building, amidst all the hustle and bustle of Humvees, tanker trucks, Army engineer boats practicing bridging operations and Chinook helicopters flying overhead in preparation for Operation River Assault, Pfc. Johnathen O’Neill is sitting in a barber chair.
“So this is where it all happened?” ponders O’Neil, a cook with the 854th Engineer Battalion (Forward Support) as he admires the photos and memorabilia hanging on the wall. “This is music royalty. I mean, we are talking about ‘The King of Rock and Roll’ man.” The 854th Eng. Bn. (FS) is an Army Reserve unit based in Saugerties, N.Y.
While the barbershop is slow on this day, in March of 1958, the whole world had their eyes on this chair. Media outlets from all over flocked in anticipation as none other then Elvis Presley received his first G.I. military buzz cut and shaved his famous sideburns during a three-day stay at Fort Chaffee in preparation for a two-year commitment to the U.S. Army.
While O’Neill isn’t on the same level as Presley, one can dream. He recently showed off his rap skills, trying out for the Simon Cowell produced reality show, “The X Factor” and made it to the second round of auditions in New York.
Back at the dining facility, he stares through the steam rising from the hot trays of eggs, bacon and grits. He still thinks about that moment and asks himself the question "what if?"
“I should’ve been more prepared. I was so close,” said O’Neill, who didn’t make it to the third round of auditions, which means performing for a celebrity panel of musician judges and is filmed for television purposes. “I’d been practicing my songs for weeks, but never knew I’d be auditioning without my background music. I froze and it just didn’t go well at all. Make no mistake though, I’ll learn from it and be back next year.”
However this isn’t the first bout with adversity that O’Neill has faced.
Growing up in the Bronx, the northernmost borough of New York City, he faced constant adversaries who liked to give him a hard time based on his nationality and skin complexion.
“It was tough as a kid. I went to school every day always looking over my shoulder,” said O’Neill, a native of Windham, N.Y. “I was always in fights. Mainly because I’m a red-headed kid with a different skin tone. All I knew was to fight.”
Coming home everyday with black eyes, scratches and fighting off personal problems, O’Neill took to poetry as an outlet. When, as a 16 year-old kid, one of his poems was published in the "Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul" series, a local freestyle rapper took notice.
“He told me my stuff was good and told me I needed to put my words to a beat,” said O’Neill. “I was hesitant at first. I always thought the rap game kind of had a negative stereotype and I didn’t want to be involved with that lifestyle.”
After some convincing, he gave the rap world a second look. As homage to the poetry that spawned the opportunity and as play on words, he took up the stage name "Poetry in Motion." Beginning with simple, playful rhymes and hooks, O’Neill found that making music was taking the place of fighting.
“For the longest time, I always fought my problems with my hands and actions,” said O’Neill. “Once I discovered I could take these frustrations out in the form of music, I was hooked for the better.”
Riding high on the waves of accomplishment, his homemade recordings caught the eye of talent scouts from Sony Entertainment. At the same time, he was playing high school tennis and had climbed to the third place ranking in the state of New York.
However, adversity once again reared its ugly head in the form of words from his girlfriend.
“She basically told me that I was nobody and that she couldn’t see herself with a guy who was never going to be anything,” said O’Neill. “When your 17 and in love, you take words like these very hard.”
With those words haunting his mind on a daily basis, he looked to the Army as a way to prove his merit to her. He turned down a $200,000 record contract due to nerves and the thought he wouldn’t be able to fulfill his end of the deal and instead of following out his tennis ambitions, he left for basic training.
Still, this wasn’t enough to convince his girlfriend to stick around.
“She moved to Georgia and said she was moving on to bigger and better things,” said O’Neill. “It broke my heart and now I was on my way to basic training with her words still spinning in my mind.”
With his old life in the rearview mirror and the Army as his new priority, he found himself struggling to comprehend his place in life. Upon receiving the news that his ex-girlfriend had also looked to the Army for new beginnings, he was ready to pack-up and head back to New York.
However, it was then in the final hour that he received the motivation he needed to succeed.
“I was literally in the process of writing my parents and I was asking them if they would be alright with me giving up. I’d had enough of basic training and was ready to quit,” said O’Neill. “I got a letter then from my ex-girlfriend saying she’d failed and that she couldn’t get into the Army.”
“Right then I decided I couldn’t give up. She had said I’d never be anything and yet here she was failing at something I still had a shot at. Any thoughts I’d had of quitting were gone and I was going to be the best soldier there was. I was no longer worried about proving anything to her, but instead proving to myself I could be something more,” added O’Neill.
It was in those coming weeks that he also realized he wasn’t alone in having to overcome issues that had plagued him as a kid. He met other soldiers who were prevailing past rough childhoods and giving themselves a better life and future.
Thanks to his fellow Ssldiers and the newfound confidence in himself, he is now using his talents to speak out on important topics and more personal moments in his life.
“The Army gave me the confidence and structure to go further and take this thing to the next level,” said O’Neill. “Knowing there are people out there just like me, I can now get my message out to a whole new audience.”
With nearly 2,000 followers on his Facebook page from various places such as India, Brazil, Europe and the United States, O’Neill’s rapping career is starting to take flight once again. One of his songs, "I Ain't Perfect" has received more than 3,000 views on YouTube.
Recently, a video producer from his hometown took notice of O’Neill’s music and offered to make him a music video for his song, "She loves me not" and it was recently filmed at a local coffee shop.
While fame and fortune is a possibility, for O’Neill, it’s more about the opportunity to share his story. He has set high goals and aspirations, but is most proud of his service to his country.
“It took me a long time, but I can honestly say I’ve made something of myself,” said O’Neill. “Out of all my friends from back home, half of them are in and out of jail and few can say they have made it this far.”
“I owe everything I have to the Army. If everything ended tomorrow and for some reason I couldn’t make music any longer, I could go to bed at night happy knowing I served my country.”