The family and friends of self-sacrificing veterans often witness the harsh reality of a war-torn soldier returning to civilian life. Stressful situations from combat can leave them with the heavy burden of returning home while coping with terrifying memories. But the same courageous finger that pulled the trigger on the battlefield now has the opportunity to cradle a guitar pick, helping to restore joy and purpose.
As a nonprofit organization, Guitars for Vets provides guitar instruction for US veterans. This “unofficial” therapy serves veterans through more than 30 chapters in 15 states. Since its inception in 2007, it has handed out more than 2,000 free guitars to eager veterans who have attended more than 12,000 lessons taught by 100 volunteers nationwide.
“This has truly become a movement,” says cofounder Patrick Nettesheim.
Guitars for Vets began as an idea inspired by Nettesheim and his student Dan Van Buskirk. As a Vietnam Marine, Buskirk suffered from the effects of his time in combat, having difficulty with coordination and memory. Nettesheim, who has taught guitar for more than 30 years began collaborating with Buskirk in the fall of 2006.
“Playing guitar helped him find a window of serenity,” Nettesheim explains. “It really gave him freedom from a lot of things he struggled with as far as not having the confidence that he could achieve with [an instrument].”
Van Buskirk proposed that they go to the Milwaukee Veterans Affairs Center to play for men and women in the spinal rehabilitation unit. Joe Gallenberger, store owner of local Cream City Music, whose father was a veteran, gave them a few guitars to give away on their visit.
“At that point it was quite obvious, although giving the gift of these instruments really lit them up like Christmas, we still had to teach them how to play,” Nettesheim admits. “So that’s when the lessons started.”
The two guitar enthusiasts returned week after week to work with their new students. Eventually, Nettesheim came to the realization that this effort needed to expand into a nonprofit organization so they could help more veterans. He felt it had national and global potential.
Aside from providing a form of release for vets, the program helps in many other ways. For example, student Patrick Cannon of the Chicago chapter suffered a stroke, and Guitars for Vets is helping him regain his right hand coordination. “It’s very beneficial in that way,” he says. The 65-year-old Vietnam Army veteran uses repetition and practice to help coordinate fingers on both hands from his home in Morris, Illinois.
“Other than finally getting to learn something about music, it’s the accomplishment I’ve felt being able to play a very simple song,” Cannon explains. “It’s just the pleasure of making music.”
The program’s music instructors are volunteers who vary in experience, but all believe in supporting a greater cause. There is no requirement that they be certified or licensed music therapists, and the program does not promote itself in that way. However, all potential instructors do go through a VA background check. Each is knowledgeable and is encouraged to follow the acronym PAGE—patience, acceptance, gratitude, and empathy.
“If you bring those elements into the lesson, that’s where learning can begin,” says executive director Eric Weinstein. Many times a veteran’s most prized memories can be the friends he or she made while serving the military and the fellowship they experienced. “This is a way they can re-establish that,” he adds.
Music draws people together. It can uplift the mood of, not only the performer, but of all those taking part in performance, according to Nettesheim.
“It’s not just the guitar that’s a healing instrument, but the guitar serves as a catalyst toward developing feelings of accomplishment,” Weinstein says.
Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder can be flashbacks, dread, worry, depression, anxiety, and isolation. The program is geared toward bringing people out of self-isolation and helping them focus on something other than trauma.
“It’s given me a chance to get out and coexist with other people again,” says 42-year-old Bruce Keller. As a Marine Corps veteran of the Gulf War, he is now regaining his childhood passion while battling an inner struggle of depression and post-traumatic stress. “Guitars for Vets gives us a chance to be in a safe place, doing something we enjoy,” he adds. “A lot of fellow veterans have recommended the program.”
Keller began playing guitar at the age of 10. He performed and recorded his own music for many years until nerve damage on his left side made it difficult to play chords. He says Guitars for Vets has been a renewal experience for him because he is able to play again.
“It shows the student they are capable of feeling well, or at least not feeling as horrible as when they walked in,” Nettesheim explains. “That, right there, is hope. You can build upon that hope. You never lost that spark, you never lost that joy. It just got covered up with grief and sadness.”
Upon returning from Afghanistan, Army veteran Barbara Ferrer suffered from the memory of witnessing the fall of a comrade in an attack. “Guitars for Vets really helps me cope with my depression,” she says. “It helps me to just heal. If I start crying, I’ll pick up the guitar. Strumming the strings and pouring out tears makes me feel better.”
Inspired by the love of music, Ferrer began taking lessons in December 2011, a few months after she was discharged. As a servicewoman it was extremely difficult to study music, but when she finished her duty, she considered it her time to shine and get into classes. Guitars for Vets offered free instruction.
“It helped me out, not only financially, but emotionally as well,” Ferrer says. “I’m a true believer in the human power of music. I feel like I’m able to reach out.”
The bulk of the program’s funding comes from the generosity of individuals, in the form of grassroots support. Chapters host events at local music stores and festivals. As a nonprofit organization, Guitars for Vets also applies for grants, with the largest so far coming from the Les Paul Foundation.
Over the past year the organization has also attracted a few corporate sponsors. For example, Yamaha supports the effort with the help of Kraft Music owner Ben Kraft, who is on the Guitars for Vets board of directors. Yamaha donates practice guitars to all chapters across the country.
Guitars for Vets is structured to provide 10 free lessons on donated guitars. Following the 10-week beginner course, the students are given a brand new Yamaha FG700S acoustic guitar, plus an accessory pack, and each “graduate” moves into group lessons with other instructors and veterans.
Nettesheim says there is a high suicide rate among veterans and they need continued help. He feels word-of-mouth helps spread the message of Guitars for Vets very quickly.
“I think what we’ve figured out is how to tangibly demonstrate and share the healing power of music,” Weinstein says. “This has always been our mission.”
To see how you can help visit their site: www.guitars4vets.org