Operation Music Aid: Instruments for Wounded Veterans
by Colette Hebert
The note was simple, but powerful. It came from a soldier of the United States Marine Corps, wounded in battle. “Thank you for the instruments,” he wrote. “It means so much as I’m trying to learn to replay the guitar after losing my arm.”
More messages arrived. One young Army soldier wrote “I cannot thank you enough for the guitar. It’s so beautiful, and I’m very thankful.” Another Marine offered, “Thank you so much for the guitar, and for the support.”
These heartfelt thank-you notes were sent to George Hauer and Clark Kniceley, co-founders of the Madison, Connecticut-based Operation Music Aid.
This new program is organizing donations of musical instruments and accessories, and taking monetary donations to buy instruments, supplying them to wounded veterans of military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, who are recovering in American military hospitals.
“There are about 10,000 wounded veterans in this country, and many need physical therapy to get used to using their hands again,” says Hauer, explaining that Operation Music Aid is currently giving instruments to patients at Brooke Army Medical Hospital in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. Lt. Col. Stephanie Daugherty, a physical therapist at Walter Reed, explains how the donated instruments—guitars, harmonicas, and keyboards—provide both physical and psychological therapy for the wounded.
“Playing instruments provides the soldiers an activity they enjoy as well as therapy for an extremity that has been injured or for a prosthetic device if an extremity was amputated,” says Daugherty. “Playing improves motor coordination and motor planning skills. It also makes the soldiers happy.”
The gifts, made possible thanks to instrument and accessory manufacturers—including Yamaha, Korg, Jim Dunlop, GHS, Levy’s Leathers, Ernie Ball, and D’Addario—as well as countless individuals who have donated money, time, and instruments, also serve as a reminder to the soldiers that the nation is thankful for their sacrifice.
“Learning an instrument is a welcome return to life for the soldiers, and it reminds them they’re not forgotten,” says Army Lt. Col. Dr. Gerard Curran, a former emergency room surgeon for an Iraq-based combat surgical hospital, who is working with Operation Music Aid.
“The soldiers need music to distract themselves,” continues Curran. “Many are young and have Type A personalities. Obviously musical instruments aren’t for everyone, but in this predominantly young, athletic population, music will probably come to mean more than it does at first glance.”
Curran suggests that offering an instrument to a wounded soldier who has never played challenges them in a positive way. “Soldiers by their nature overcome adversities,” he observes. “I’m not suggesting these men and women are super-human, but eventually they are going to just do it. For them, a musical instrument is enjoyable, a welcome break, and, in the hands of the right patient, a powerful means of expression.”
In addition to playing the instruments for fun, as a challenge, or to alleviate the boredom of a hospital stay, more formal music therapy is available for the soldiers at both Walter Reed and Brooke. But the use of music therapy for the rehabilitation of soldiers is not a new phenomenon. In fact, the military can be counted as one of the pioneers of the field of music therapy.
One of the first times music therapy was used by the military was in 1943, when the Army offered a Reconditioning Program for soldiers fighting in World War II. The program’s overall goal was to return wounded military personnel back to their best physical and psychological health, and music was seen as one way to do this. Today, music therapy is still seen as a valuable rehabilitation tool by the military.
It’s a tool soldiers use themselves in the field. In fact, Kniceley, a veteran of Operation Desert Storm, recalls how he and his buddies played to relieve the stress of battle. “While bombs went off in the distance,” he recalls, “we’d be in a circle strumming our guitars. We played a lot. It helped get our minds off things.”
Carol Spears, a certified music practitioner in the Music for Healing and Transition Program, a civilian organization that offers music to patients, explains that music therapy is being used in increasing numbers of medical settings, such as hospitals, hospices, and rehabilitation centers.
Years of research, not to mention anecdotal evidence, has shown the effectiveness of music therapy. Spears, who plays harp at the bedsides of hospital patients, notes some of the ways that music can be used to aid the healing process. “Patients receiving music therapy experience increased levels of endorphins, decreased amounts of pain, lowered heart rates, decreased blood pressure, increased relaxation and sleep, and decreased anxiety,” she says.
Sometimes the reaction in a patient is visual. “I see stress leave patients’ faces; I hear their breathing slow down; and they appear much more relaxed,” Spears observes.
The owner of Madison Music, in Madison, Connecticut, Hauer says he became involved with Operation Music Aid in order to recognize those who have put their lives on the line for their country.
“It’s a beautiful thing to help kids that are being forgotten,” says Hauer, whose father ran a military hospital in World War II. “These soldiers need our help getting their lives back together.”
Although a relatively new charity, Operation Music Aid already has delivered an impressive number of instruments into the grateful hands of soldiers. Hauer, and co-founder Clark Kniceley, who served in Desert Storm, have overseen the collection of more than 240 harmonicas, 48 Korg tuners, a gross of guitar strings, 47 leather straps, 90 harmonica neck holders, 60 Yamaha guitars, and 12 Yamaha keyboards, sending them to the military hospitals in several shipments in February and March, with more shipments planned.
Along with donations from instrument manufacturers, spearheaded by the Yamaha Corporation of America, Hauer and Kniceley have received an acoustic-electric guitar from a private donor, which was given to a soldier who is an advanced guitar player, and a Kurzweil digital piano from a Connecticut resident, which was donated to the nondenominational chapel at Walter Reed.
“We contact the hospitals, and they tell us what they could use,” says Hauer, explaining the instrument donation process. “The instruments are chosen based on their noise factor. Drums are avoided because they could sound like bombs.”
Sustained breathing might not be possible for some patients, so no wind instruments are being sent. Also, instruments must be nondisruptive. Keyboards are OK, says Hauer, because the soldiers can plug headphones in, while guitars and harmonicas can be played quietly. Neck holders are provided with the harmonicas for soldiers who are unable to use their arms.
The most popular instrument is the guitar. Lt. Col. Daugherty observes that it is also one of the most therapeutic. “In order for someone to be able to play chords on the guitar, or notes on the keyboard, the brain tells the hand what to do,” says Daugherty. “If the person’s hand does not work properly due to injury, or the brain has been damaged, the connection between the two needs to be relearned.” Learning or relearning chords and scales helps make those connections.
Some of the patients are learning to play an instrument at the same time as getting used to a prosthetic device. In these cases, Daugherty explains, “If the prosthesis is the dominant hand, a soldier can hold the pick in the device. If it is the nondominant hand, then we can use guitar playing to help change-of-dominance training.”
Although it may take a long time for all the physical and psychological benefits of music therapy to manifest in the soldiers, there is already anecdotal evidence that the donated instruments are having a positive effect on morale. Hauer reports that the music-making soldiers have even taken to serenading fellow soldiers who are taking therapeutic cooking classes.
And the thank-you notes—some barely legible because they have been written with prosthetic hands, others accompanied by artwork—keep coming, says Hauer. “I can not thank you enough for donating me a guitar,” wrote one soldier, summing up the gratitude of his buddies. “The one thing that’ll speed my recovery is to play again.”