Guitar Heroism: Veterans Fight PTSD With Music

An alternative treatment for veterans suffering the effects of PTSD and traumatic brain injury is growing in popularity, as is its wait list. The program, started by a Vietnam veteran, uses the soothing sounds of the guitar to help heal the vivid memory of bomb blasts, gunfire and other lingering symptoms of combat. Erin Toner of WUWM reports.

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SUSAN STAMBERG, host: In cities across the country, military veterans are on waiting lists for an alternative therapy treat war-related mental health issues. But they're not waiting to see doctors or counselors at VA hospitals. These veterans are lining up for a program that uses musical instruction and free guitars to soothe symptoms of trauma.

Erin Toner of member station WUWM in Milwaukee reports.

ERIN TONER: Thirty-eight-year-old Army veteran Mark Duran recently wrote his first original song for guitar. He says it's a musical portrait of his Basset Hound lumbering around the backyard.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR PLAYING)

TONER: Duran is a graduate of Guitars for Vets, a program that started in Milwaukee in 2007 and now has chapters in more than 20 states. The program that's growing by word of mouth offers free lessons and a guitar to military veterans who've suffered trauma. Duran was referred to the program by his VA psychiatrist as an alternative mental health treatment.

MARK DURAN: It's nice to have that vibration coming inside of you and realizing it's nice to have it in your arms 'cause it feels a lot like my M-4. It has that same tactile feeling of safety, of having your weapon with you.

TONER: Duran served in Afghanistan with the Army military police. In September 2005, he was in the lead vehicle in a unit on patrol in Helmand province. Duran says it was routine until the crowds began to scatter. That's when a car drove right up to front of the convoy and blew up.

DURAN: You know, that's the last thing I remember. I remember seeing a little kid on a bike nearby and that's the last image of him disappearing, and me going out. And woke up minutes later, medic was working on me. The first words out of his mouth was like, Mark, you're OK. You have your arms and legs, so you'll be fine. And that, it was I guess the criteria.

TONER: Like many veterans, Duran is a lifelong soldier struggling to adjust in a civilian world. He has three problems that have become hallmarks of modern military service - traumatic brain injury, chronic pain and post traumatic stress disorder. Duran says he didn't recognize the person he'd become when he first came home from war. He was angry and depressed, and he lashed out at co-workers, his 10-year-old son and his wife.

DURAN: And she was so strong to deal with that and to, you know, be with me this whole time. You should interview the wives more so than the soldiers 'cause they can tell you the true story. We're just kind of reacting to life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PATRICK NETTESHEIM: All right. Now, take your third finger and put that in the third tread, second string.

TONER: Tonight, a group of mostly Vietnam veterans have gathered at a residential home on the VA grounds in Milwaukee. They've all been referred to Guitars for Vets by their doctors or social workers.

NETTESHEIM: I think one of the things that really makes this program work is we're not there to evaluate these people. We're simply there to teach them guitar.

TONER: That's Patrick Nettesheim. He co-founded Guitars for Vets along with a Vietnam veteran. He says participants benefit from the soothing effects of music and the knowledge that if they want to talk, someone is there to listen.

NETTESHEIM: They are our brothers and sisters and, yeah, they volunteered for their service, they volunteered for their combat but they didn't volunteer for a life of trauma. And that's where we as a society, I strongly believe, need to step it up and take care of them for as long as their lives are.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TONER: Donna Smaglick says she was sexually assaulted by military personnel in the 1970s. She didn't report it and started drinking to cope with the trauma. Smaglick says learning the guitar has given her some peace.

DONNA SMAGLICK: It makes me feel better. Everybody's so good here. You know, I've been going through depression and physical problems, but I'm fighting it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TONER: A research team at the local VA in Milwaukee is studying the effectiveness of guitar lessons as a treatment program. Guitars for Vets, which is totally reliant on donations, is hoping the research will lead to federal funding. For NPR news, I'm Erin Toner in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAND BY ME")

BEN E. KING: (Singing) When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we'll see...

STAMBERG: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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