When he would go on a mission in Afghanistan, he’d tuck the picture inside his body armor, and fold up the card and carry it in his backpack.
The card, a February 2011 Valentine that Amanda Bublitz sent to her husband, Jake, was more like a poster. Big. “Obnoxious,” he might say, with a head-shake and a sly smile. Peppered with Polaroids marking their time together.
The picture he tucked inside his Kevlar was of her, on their August 2010 wedding day — she had a white lily in her hair.
When the mission was over, he would take off his gear and unpack the card and the picture, and he would arrange the memories nearby, wherever he tried to find rest.
Sometimes he played his guitar, a black Ibanez with a cutaway near the sound hole. Sometimes he riffed, finding chord progressions he liked and jotting them down. Sometimes he wrote songs.
Years later, as a staff sergeant and drill instructor assigned to Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island — in the summer of 2017, as a finalist in a national music competition for veterans — a man in the Nashville music industry would look at the sticker-festooned, beat-up carrying case that held the guitar and ask where it had traveled.
“And I told him, ‘Sir, it’s probably easier to tell you where it hasn’t,'” Bublitz said Friday, recalling the moment, his voice hoarse from barking commands at recruits and directing them around the drill field.
His tall, muscled frame filled an office chair inside a drill instructor hut in 2nd Recruit Training Battalion’s Echo Company barracks. He wore brown work boots, jeans and a gray T-shirt. Moments earlier, the 30-year-old, Beaver Dam, Wis., native had taken off the red-and-white University of Wisconsin cap he might wear when he plays Lowcountry gigs as “JP Guhns,” his singer-songwriter persona.
“JP:” a nickname he’s had since childhood.
“Guns:” originally “Young Guns,” his call-sign during that first deployment to Afghanistan, one he’d earned as an eager, motivated .
He mashed them together and added the “h” — and found that singing and songwriting with his pen name allowed him to tap into something deeper, a different place.
He wanted to be somewhere else in 2011 when he looked at the pictures of his wife. He thought about how, with his eyes open, he saw the reality that was Afghanistan. And thought about how he could close his eyes and take his mind to another place — how he could be with Amanda.
He strummed his guitar.
And started writing a song.
Someone who, this summer, heard one of Bublitz’s songs on the radio described his sound as “(Bruce) Springsteen-esque country.”
“Because I’m a storyteller,” Bublitz said. “I kind of talk about the economy. When I go home, it’s hard for me to go home. The Corps has afforded me the family and the brotherhood, and a great (career) — I just had to leave my family every now and then and do my job. But when I go (to Wisconsin), I got guys that are losing jobs, you know, that are still trying to take care of their families.”
His songs have blue-collar roots. They’re not complaint anthems — rather, they document people’s experiences. And, for the most part, they’re not — on the surface, at least — about life in the military.
An exception is “Good Friends and Whiskey.”
The song, which deals first with a breakup, then a job lost, turns to a late-night patrol and “a midnight dance in hell.”
I never felt so alone/Than when my buddy fell, Bublitz sings.
“It’s kind of your perfect country song,” he said. “Loss of love. Loss of job. The only thing that changes in that is the third verse, which is pretty much Corps related. … It talks about losing a buddy. … I had never lost a , before it happened.”
Bublitz wants his songs to be relatable to anyone — that’s the reason there’s not a lot of overt military jargon in his lyrics. But in this case, he knew far too well that far too many people would be able to relate.
His trip to Nashville this summer was part of his selection as one of five finalists in the Mission: Music contest, a joint effort by veteran-media-site We Are The Mighty and military-financial-service-provider USAA. The results were announced Monday, and Bublitz did not win.
Still, he got an education: he traded business cards with music-industry folks. He got to record at Ocean Way Studios on Music Row. And he played at the Commodore Grille, where folks were appreciative — even if they were looking for the next Luke Bryan or Florida Georgia Line.
Bublitz is recording an EP in Florida that’s due out soon, but being a drill instructor is his primary focus.
He fits his music around the Corps, just as he did in Afghanistan, where he wrote a song about his wife — one he called “Smile.”
When he deployed to Iraq in 2008, Bublitz didn’t have to close his eyes to be near Amanda.
She was in country, too, like him a combat engineer.
But they weren’t an item yet. Really, they didn’t like each other.
“We didn’t get along for the first two years we knew each other,” said Amanda, 35, who retired as a sergeant from the Corps in the fall of 2010. “We were in the same company (in Okinawa, Japan) but were both in charge of different platoons. We had different leadership styles. … We were rivals.”
They became friends after that deployment, though, when he worried one day he was being too much of a hermit, and followed a friend down to her room. The trio, all Midwesterners, talked and shared beers, and he found out he and his future wife had a lot in common.
Today, the couple has two daughters: Zoey, 5, and Kolbie, 2.
When he deployed to Afghanistan, he took the wedding-day picture of Amanda with him, and the lily.
“It’s a fake flower,” she said. “We still have it.”
When his Afghan tour ended he returned to Okinawa. She’d moved stateside, and he wouldn’t get to see her for a while.
But when he was out with friends about five days after he’d returned to Japan, he heard the whistle.
It was a signal they’d come up with so they could find each other if they were in different parts of a grocery store or if they got separated in a crowd.
He’d whistle two notes and she’d whistle them back, but reverse the order.
He heard two notes he recognized. He turned to find her standing there. His fellow helped her plan the surprise.
Later, they went back to his barracks.
He played her the song.
And on that day, he didn’t have to close his eyes to be home.
Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston
(c)2017 The (Hilton Head, S.C.) — www.islandpacket.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.