- Written by Gabriele Amersbach Gabriele Amersbach
A group of six vets are playing guitars as part of downtown Lancaster’s Music for Everyone Friday-night art celebration. The audience smiles, taps their feet, and hums along as the group plays a crowd favorite, John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
Most are not aware they are watching veterans who have learned to play the guitar as part of their healing from the trauma of war.
From World War II to Vietnam and the more recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, many veterans carry this trauma with them. Some are in wheelchairs with spinal injuries and lost limbs; others have brain injuries from IUDs that have limited their mental skills and caused hearing loss.
Vietnam vets exposed to Agent Orange may now endure neurological damage. Others have respiratory problems from chemical and ash exposure in fires. Some have no outward physical symptoms but feel depression and survivor guilt. All are welcome to participate in the Guitars for Vets program.
According to the group’s website (guitarsforvets.org), more than 800,000 U.S. veterans struggle with physical injuries, PTSD, and other emotional distress. The goal of the program is to engage veterans in a community so they don’t have to face the challenges of PTSD in silence or alone.
By learning to play guitar with other vets, program participants start to recover from the trauma through the healing power of music, explains David Bowen, a Vietnam vet who has been active in the Guitars for Vets program since 2012.
The group was started by Patrick Nettesheim with his student and friend, Dan Van Buskirk, a Vietnam-era Marine, in 2007. In just 14 years, Guitars for Vets has grown to more than 100 chapters throughout the United States serving both male and female vets.
Bowen started a new chapter in Salem, Virginia, in 2012, where he remained as coordinator until 2017. When he moved to Lancaster in 2018, he started another chapter in Lebanon.
‘We Are in This Together’
Bowen explains the process. The veterans learn about the group through a referral from their primary healthcare provider affiliated with the Veterans Administration. Unfortunately, many have to wait for a space to open up in a nearby chapter.
Once accepted, each vet receives a reconditioned acoustic guitar and an instruction book and begins one hour of lessons each week for 10 weeks with a volunteer instructor.
According to Bowen, “Our members learn a few simple chords, so they can play their favorite songs, but no theory. They learn how to strum and to play together as a team. Our approach is that we are all in this together. Then they drive the whole family crazy as they start practicing.”
The classes are usually in the daytime so the participants can take public transportation to the VA activity center.
Each vet learns to play his or her favorite songs, from AC/DC to Garth Brooks, at whatever pace works best. Bowen helps to transpose these favorites into simple three-chord songs.
At the chapter’s weekly meetings (before virus restrictions), the vets come together to play guitar as a group and form friendships and community with peers who have had similar experiences.
Bowen explains that many participants build confidence and become skilled and confident enough to perform at local fundraisers, at “open-mic” nights at local coffeehouses, in community celebrations, and in church praise bands.
Some have even learned enough to participate in the program as volunteer instructors for other vets.
Bowen has seen amazing changes after just a few months of participation.
“Many of my fellow veterans are shy, look inward, and don’t want to step out of the box. The program gives them confidence and hope. I often have a spouse, friend, or child who takes me aside to say, ‘You’ve changed his or her life.’”
Bowen describes an early participant who was “listless, slouched in his seat, and didn’t talk when we first met. The guitar and music took him out of his shell. Now he is writing his own songs, performing, and is even on YouTube.”
According to Guitars for Vets website, the music program helps decrease anxiety, increase self-esteem, and reduce episodes of panic attacks, nightmares, and flashbacks.
A research study of veterans in the program showed a 21% improvement in PTSD symptoms and a 27% decrease in related depression symptoms.
The Impact of COVID
Bowen is deeply concerned that COVID-19 may continue to cut off the veterans’ access to all VA programs, including Guitars for Vets.
“It worries me,” he says. “For many vets, the VA is their only social outlet where they do art, write songs, play ping-pong, or just BS in the snack bar.”
Without vital social interactions that help veterans heal and reenter the wider community, the consequences may be dire.
Bowen notes many chapters closed down instruction and meetings during 2020 and into this year.
“Now, with the delta variant, it’s dicey,” he explains. “The national folks are pushing us to do virtual lessons. It’s efficient, but it’s hard to show how to put your fingers on the fret board. You just can’t reach through the screen.”
He does teach virtual classes and stays in touch even when the lessons are over.
“My students are absolutely fantastic, but learning over Google Classroom is not the same as going to a meeting or a gig. When they play together, even students who are not strong will join right in and learn from each other. You can’t do that virtually,” says Bowen.
Support for the Program
Bowen notes that the VA has been “110% behind this program, offering meeting space and providing administrative support, publicity, and referrals.”
Where chapters face the greatest challenge is raising funds to purchase acoustic guitars for the students. Each chapter receives some administrative and monetary support from the national organization.
“However, we are responsible to raise funds and seek donations from the local community,” says Bowen. “I often check out flea markets, eBay, and music stores for old guitars.
“I’ve been very lucky. Local vet organizations have been very supportive. And the people at Music for Everyone (music-for-everyone.org) have donated 15-20 new guitars.”
As semiprofessional musician, Bowen also publicizes the program at his gigs and on his website, Acoustic Reset (acousticreset.com).
Bowen has had a remarkable career that includes teaching at West Point; commanding an Australian Cartographic Squadron in Bendigo, Australia, as an exchange officer from the National Imagery and Mapping Agency; working on highly classified projects with intelligence agencies; managing mapping contracts for MapQuest; and reconstructing digital databases of water systems for New York City post-9/11.
Yet it is his dedication to Guitars for Vets that enlivens his retirement. It helps that his wife, Marsha, is also an instructor, musician, veteran, and retired Army nurse.
“I’ve seen people’s lives improve,” says Bowen. “Most vets are very grateful. When they get their self-confidence back, it’s a testament to the program as well as to the other help they receive.”
Since 2007, 4,500 vets have participated in the program throughout the United States. Whether they play in church, for family, or just on the porch, all experience the healing power of music.
For further information about the program, check out the G4V website (guitars4vets.org/why-guitars); find the program’s Lebanon chapter on Facebook; and watch Bowen’s 2019 interview with Comcast Newsmakers (comcastnewsmakers.com/videos/2019/10/30/david-bowen).