Faces of the Faceless
Miami resident John Miranda understands using music in place of words. He spent a good portion of his adult years entrenched in the rock-musician lifestyle on the West Coast. In 1973, he joined the service and became a parachuter during the final stages of the Vietnam War. “Conflict and war are no picnic,” he says. “Nor was the way we were treated when we came home. When I got out of the military, I began drinking heavily, jumped onboard with a band, and played my life away.”
Miranda is now in his mid 50s, and not long ago he found the courage and the means to clean up his life. He went to the Miami VA for help in 2009 and met music therapist Elizabeth Stockton, whom he credits for not giving up on him during the hospital’s three-month program. Through music and sobriety, he is learning to unlock emotions he believed didn’t exist. “I know the power of music and what a program like this can do,” says Miranda, who became the first instructor for the Miami chapter of Guitars for Vets. “There’s life to music. It’s very spiritual.”
Guitars for Vets is staffed entirely by volunteers. Instructors must train through a strict VA program, and they’re submitted to rigorous FBI background checks that require fingerprinting and official badges for admission to facilities. In addition to government protocol, G4V has three requirements. “Instructors must show gratitude toward veterans for what they have given,” says Nettesheim. “They must be empathetic and sincerely able to feel these veterans’ stories, and they must be nonjudgmental and throw all political thoughts out the door.”
Marc DeRuiter instructs the Grand Rapids, Michigan, chapter of Guitars for Vets. A Navy veteran from 1972–1975 who was stationed in both the Philippines and Vietnam, he discovered the organization in 2009 through a web search. Based on his experience performing for patients in Alzheimer’s Disease units for seven years, he understands the therapeutic effects of music. He has been a musician since his teens, and he has a repertoire of country, bluegrass, rock, and oldies tunes. He has performed with the same musicians for 30 years, and he began teaching guitar at his church 10 years ago. After discovering G4V online, DeRuiter says he emailed Nettesheim because he thought he’d be “a good fit.” He explains, “Our philosophies are right in line with each other. I’m sold on the therapeutic value of music—you spend an hour a day doing it, and your body treats it like a workout. It relieves your stress. You practice until you get it right, and that provides a sense of accomplishment.”
Marc DeRuiter (right), a Navy vet who served in Vietnam from 1972 to 1975, instructs Richard Pierson in a Guitars for Vets class at the Grand Rapids, Michigan, VA center. Photo by Marc DeRuiter
For that reason, DeRuiter makes a point of teaching actual songs to his students right away, helping them through “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and “The Ballad of Tom Dooley.” “If you’ve got a song, you’ve got something,” he says. “Some of these veterans have never played guitar before, and they love it. They practice on their own and get together to practice too.”
Nettesheim says that camaraderie is a crucial element of Guitars for Vets. “When you talk to veterans—especially combat veterans—they’ll tell you that they miss the teamwork and close friendships they formed while in the service. When their tour is over, they often move on and never see each other again. They fight to protect each other’s lives, and there is a great sense of loss when those relationships are gone. They go from the battlefield to being thrust back into civilian life. Concentrating on playing and practicing in groups helps them to stop thinking about their grief. Working together brings them feelings of family and belonging.”
Dan Van Buskirk (right), a Marines reconaissance scout during the Vietnam War, took up guitar in 2005 after years of PTSD had ravaged his personal and professional lives. In 2008, he and his instructor, Patrick Nettesheim (left), formed Guitars for Vets. Photo by Tim Evans
Alan Harrison, another Vietnam vet involved with G4V, learned about the organization through the Milwaukee VA hospital. He had played guitar as a teenager but gave it up when he joined the Navy, where he spent 21 years. He also suffers from severe PTSD. During his time in the service, he says, “I saw a man dismembered, sucked into the intake of a jet, and that wasn’t the worst thing I saw.”
When Harrison returned to civilian life, he couldn’t erase his memories. PTSD and depression had set in. Two years ago, he signed on for lessons with Guitars for Vets and now he’s a volunteer for the program. “When I pick up the guitar, it takes me to a simpler time when I didn’t have these memories,” he says. “The guitar eases the pain. Without this program, I would still be in serious therapy. It helps me cope.” (Visit myspace.com/guitarsforvets to hear “Dusty Old Road,” a song Harrison and Meaghan Owens wrote about his experiences as a veteran.)
Of course, Harrison, Van Buskirk, DeRuiter, and Miranda are just a few of the countless veterans of past and present armed conflicts who suffer from the debilitating effects of PTSD. Van Buskirk expresses great concern for those who have served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I see a lot of men and women slip through the cracks when they come home. I see them get fired because employers aren’t held accountable for dealing with soldiers with anxiety issues. I see things that sadden me,” he says. “But a smiling face, a compassionate heart, a listening ear, and the vibrations of a guitar can help. I can’t sit back and not be part of the solution. Medication is a useful band-aid but in no way helps the soldier get their soul back. If a soldier takes meds as the end-all be-all, they will miss out on getting their whole person back. If we take the lead with this program, maybe others will find it easier to help veterans—and maybe the VA will become more progressive and not just say, ‘Increase your meds.’”
How to Help
Guitars for Vets has distributed over 600 guitar packs to date, but these instruments are purchased, not donated—and G4V incurs significant shipping costs to send guitars to its chapters. Each guitar pack consists of an instrument, a bag, and a tuner, and it is paid for by G4V, with the Oscar Schmidt acoustics being purchased at dealer cost. To date, no manufacturer has been willing to donate any instruments, so the organization relies on monetary donations from supporters. For the price of an evening out—dinner, movie, and drinks—you can help pay for one of these packs. Stay home one night and change a veteran’s life.
Before receiving their free guitar at their sixth lesson, veterans enrolled in G4V learn to play on donated practice guitars. If you have an acoustic guitar gathering dust in your closet, send it in. Even if the instrument is no longer playable, artists associated with the program can turn it into an art piece that will then be sold to raise funds for G4V. Even if you don’t have an old guitar to donate, you can help raise awareness of the program and provide useful funds by purchasing Guitars for Vets merchandise on the organization’s website. There are other ways to get involved, too. G4V needs instructors and coordinators to set up new chapters and help with existing groups. Visit their website guitarsforvets.org
or G4V’s Facebook page for more details on the program and ways you can make a difference.