Guitars help smooth veterans' path toward healing

PENSACOLA, Fla. — "Music soothes the savage beast,'' said Army veteran Mike Drummond. "And there is one in every one of us."

Drummond, 66, knows the beast well. He and a handful of other veterans in the room are all battling PTSD, depression, anxiety disorders and other mental — and sometimes physical — issues.

But when they start playing their guitars, when their own fingers coax melody and sound from an acoustic guitar, the pain retreats a bit.

"It's a great stress reliever and very therapeutic for me,'' said Army veteran Mike Snuggs, 72. "It's been great to combat stress and the PTSD."

Moments later, Snuggs is strumming through Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" with other veterans in the meeting room at the Veterans Affairs Joint Ambulatory Care Center in Warrington. They are all enrolled in Guitar For Vets (G4V), a Milwaukee-based nonprofit that teaches guitar to veterans who are referred by doctors.

Each Wednesday, about a dozen veterans come to the center for a few hours of guitar lessons, led by volunteer instructor Douglas Morgan, 60, who is also a retired Army veteran. (The VA allows the group to use its facility to meet, but is not a program sponsor.)

"This isn't a school or college, and Beethoven ain't here,'' Morgan joked. "But we sure have a great time. Look around. You can see how much fun it is."

There are 40 nationwide chapters of G4V. The Pensacola chapter started in 2011. Once a veteran is referred to the free program, he or she is given a loaner acoustic guitar to use in the sessions that they can take home to use for practice. If they keep with it for 12 weeks, the national G4V program sends the veteran a new guitar that is theirs to keep.

"Isn't it pretty?'' asked Army vet Jackie Whalen, 60, who started in the program a year ago. Actually, he was so excited about his guitar he said "purr-ty" instead of pretty. It's pretty obvious from the smile on his face, he loves it.

"I have always loved music and guitar players, and this gave me an opportunity to learn for free. I play a lot. It gives me something to do and keeps me from sitting in the house doing nothing."

Soon, Whalen is fingering the chords to accompany Snuggs on the Cash classic. (But what he really wants to play is some Skynyrd! And ZZ Top. And Blackberry Smoke.)

"I like Southern rock,'' he said.

Morgan teaches two classes on Wednesdays, each with guitarists of different levels. Some have been playing a few years. Some a few months. And Morgan has to instruct them all.

"We're like a one-room schoolhouse,'' Morgan said. "I just go in circles."

Snuggs always wanted to play music, but didn't have a chance growing up.

"I wanted to play guitar after listening to the Grand Ole Opry as a kid,'' he said. "But we didn't have much money to buy groceries even, so we definitely couldn't buy a guitar."

Morgan said the program is funded through donations to the national organization, which purchases the guitars, and to the local chapter. He credited businesses and organizations such as Blues Angel Music, and the Al Grey chapter of Disabled American Veterans who have donated equipment and gear.

About 30 students have gone through the program since its inception in 2011. They're welcome to keep coming as long as they want.

"Even though it's great therapy for stress and PTSD, it's not just about that,'' Snuggs said. "It’s about fellowship and spending time with people who have had similar life experiences. We can relate to each other."


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