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Music lessons, which come with a free guitar, have offerd war veterans a way to manage symptoms of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, panic attacks and post traumatic stress disorder.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
In the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salem, George Walters (from left, seated) of Riner, Rodney Franklin of Thaxton and VA music therapist Beth Woodward greet Jerald Smith of Boones Mill at a meeting of the Salem chapter of Guitars For Vets. About 32 chapters have been founded around the United States since the original, in 2007.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
Robert Smith of Burnt Chimney plays guitar during a G4V class. He says he’s suffered from PTSD and has had nightmares for more than 40 years, but enjoys playing the guitar. “It helps me sort of get some of the PTSD out of my head,” Smith said.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times
G4V volunteer teacher John Stickley (top) of Troutville works with George Walters of Riner during an intermediate class. “I love playing guitar, and I love passing it along,” said Stickley, who is a disabled veteran himself. “Music’s just an avenue that a lot of people don’t have.”
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
Jamie Gray, 38, and his 15-year-old son, Nathan, graduated from the G4V beginner guitar class. As a veteran, Jamie was given a guitar at graduation, but because he already had one he liked, he gave the new, gently used one to Nathan.
REBECCA BARNETT | The Roanoke Times; David Bowen
Sunday, June 30, 2013
Tucked in a basement room in a Veterans Affairs Medical Center building in Salem, a group of vets sat in a circle, each holding a guitar.
Most were gray-haired and some gray-bearded, far from the days of wearing Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force uniforms.
The teachers had them go through old folk and gospel standards — “Wildwood Flower,” “Down in the Valley,” “He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands,” “Red River Valley.”
Then the teachers asked the students to take turns playing what they wanted to play. Songs like the Eagles’ “Peaceful, Easy Feelin’,” Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird” and America’s “Horse With No Name” emerged.
Then one of the younger students turned to the kid next to him — yes, a kid of 15 — and encouraged him to play something he had been working on.
“Why?” asked the teenager, Nathan Gray. “Because I’m proud of you,” his father, Jamie Gray, replied.
With that, the son plucked out the opening riff to Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.”
That day in early May, the Grays and nine others graduated from the Salem chapter of the Guitars For Vets organization’s beginner guitar class. And as they did, VA staff and volunteers handed out 10 guitars, one for each veteran. Jamie Gray, 38, already owned a guitar that he liked, so he gave his new one to Nathan.
The others now owned nice instruments to help keep their fingers in the game. The guitars came courtesy of Salem’s branch of the national Guitars For Vets program and Jefferson Center, whose guest services manager, Ian Fortier, had gathered the “gently used” guitars.
For the Grays, the 10 weekly lessons have been a bonding experience.
“Yeah, he’s stuck with his old man,” Jamie Gray said, joking.
For other veterans, it’s not officially music therapy, but it is a way to manage symptoms of substance abuse, depression, anxiety, panic attacks and post traumatic stress disorder.
The VA now has dozens of ex-military people on a waiting list for the guitar lessons, and with Jefferson Center’s help, it can let in more students for the sessions with the promise of a guitar as a graduation gift.
The six-string influx has allowed the program to increase its beginner lesson size from six to 10.
Healing with song
The national program began in 2007, when a Milwaukee, Wis., guitar teacher, Patrick Nettesheim, met a Vietnam War Marine veteran who wanted to learn but feared that his PTSD had left him too uncoordinated.
But after Nettesheim and his new student, Dan Van Buskirk, began working together, they affirmed music’s healing power, according to the Guitars4vets.org.
The pair teamed up to take the idea to Milwaukee’s VA, and the program known as G4V was born.
G4V grew slowly at first, but by 2011, groups in California, Michigan, Illinois, North Carolina and Virginia were starting chapters.
“It just grew by word of mouth,” G4V national chapter coordinator Bernie Kampf said. “The VA people started talking about it among themselves, and it spread that way.”
Later, Facebook gave the nonprofit organization even more exposure. There are 32 active chapters. At least 800 veterans have taken lessons, and G4V has given away at least 530 guitars, Kampf said. Chapters have emerged in several more states, as well, and data collected from some of those organizations would likely show many more veterans taking lessons and receiving guitars, he said.
The Salem VA got involved in 2012, graduating its first class that May, after 10 free, weekly sessions led by David Bowen, the Salem G4V chapter coordinator who brought the idea to Beth Woodward, Salem VA’s music therapist for 20 years.
Jefferson Center leaders, looking to become involved in music therapy, later sought out Woodward. She told Fortier about G4V, and he began looking for guitars for the program.
Fortier said he and Jefferson Center artistic director Dylan Locke were impressed enough to go a step further, providing tickets to the June 15 Tommy Emmanuel concert at the venue’s Shaftman Hall.
“It was a nice opportunity for us to take advantage of some of the resources [at Jefferson Center] and expose some of the individuals who went through this course to some world-class musicianship,” Fortier said.
Among those who went to the show were Jamie and Nathan Gray.
“It was incredible,” Jamie Gray said.
Jamie Gray’s Army experience was a mix of bad and good luck. He went to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., in 2007, but a few weeks in, he dislocated a shoulder and herniated a disc in the neck. He was three pushups shy of graduation, and six months of physical therapy did not help enough to get him there.
“I came home two days before Thanksgiving 2007, and I get to raise my kids,” he said. Gray, who is twice divorced, has full custody of young twins from his second marriage. Nathan Gray, his oldest child, lives with his mother, Jamie Gray’s first wife.
Nathan was already taking guitar lessons when Gray found a flyer about the G4V program in the veterans representative office at Virginia Western Community College.
Jamie Gray was about to enter the nursing program at Virginia Western Community College, and Nathan would be going into 11th grade a year ahead of schedule. The teen is also working at his first job, and he plans to play football.
“So that time is slipping away,” Jamie Gray said. “Nathan and I don’t get to do too much together. I thought, this is something Nathan and I can do together.”
Both father and son loved the class.
“I had a good time,” Nathan said. “I learned a lot from the class. I didn’t really think I was going to get most of it, but I ended up getting some chords and learned how to pick better.”
Both of them are so busy, they didn’t have time to sign up for the advanced class that the VA and G4V offer. But when they can, they still sit together and pick a little.
“He’s determined to teach me ‘Crazy Train,’ ” Jamie Gray said, laughing.
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