His boots battered, his spirits sinking, Luke Stricklin struggled to explain his experiences in Iraq to his family and friends back home who kept asking him what it was like to fight in Baghdad.
"Time calling home was precious," the soldier said. "That's the last thing you wanted to talk about. Mom always said I wasn't telling her the truth, which I wasn't. I would tell her everything was just fine. Ashley, my wife, couldn't hear me talk about it. We just talked about anything else."
He couldn't speak the words. But he could sing them. He looked at the bottom of his boots one day. The boots he'd worn 12 hours a day for 14 months became the breakthrough.
"Bottom of my boots sure are getting worn," the 22-year-old Arkansas National Guardsman wrote. "There's a lot of holes in this faded uniform. Hands are black with dirt and so is my face. Ain't ever been to hell, but it can't be any worse than this place."
He kept on writing, entering lines on his laptop computer or jotting them down in a green waterproof Army-issue notebook he was required to carry while on patrols.
The song became "American by God's Amazing Grace," and by the time Stricklin came home from Iraq in March it was on country radio stations from Albuquerque, N.M., to Lima, Ohio, and Lexington, Neb., to Jackson, Tenn.
While writing the lyrics, Stricklin showed them to his Army buddy J.R. Shultz. The two worked out the music and decided to record the song. Stricklin grabbed his $25 guitar — which an Iraqi boy found for him at a Baghdad street market.
"You can't expect much being over there, but it was good enough. I played the heck out of that thing while I was over there," said Stricklin, who, on top of the money spent on the guitar, gave the boy a $25 tip for finding it.
The soldiers shut themselves in Shultz's room in a bombed-out concrete building at their Baghdad camp. They set up the laptop recording software and hooked up a cheap microphone.
"I sat on a five-gallon Igloo water cooler," Stricklin said. "We called them recording stools."
With guitar on knee, Stricklin finished the song and e-mailed it home, writing, "Mom, listen to this."
His mother, Sheila Harrington, said she was excited to see a note from her son, but didn't expect his creative response to her continuous questions.
"The song started playing and I literally broke down in tears," she said. "It all came together, the whole scenario of it for me."
Harrington quickly forwarded the e-mail onto friends and family, but she thought her son's song deserved a larger audience and she sent a copy to the local Fort Smith radio station. It prompted dozens of requests.
(Stricklin's song follows a rap album, "Live From Iraq," that a few Fort Hood soldiers wrote, recorded and produced while on a one-year deployment in Iraq.)
Upon his return from Iraq four months ago, Stricklin started playing local shows in Fort Smith and before long was on his way to Nashville, Tenn., where he recorded a studio version of the song and his self-titled debut album, due out in September.
Before leaving for Iraq, Stricklin worked in an electric motor shop, but now he's trying for a full-time music career. Internet chatrooms buzz with talk of him as a rising country star and "American by God's Amazing Grace" has been released as a single. Stricklin has made appearances on national television and radio shows promoting it.
He hopes for a hit, but his mom is just happy for the lyrics.
"I think I know them by heart," she said. "I carried the CD with me everyday and listened to it."