In the time it takes to read this story, another US serviceman or servicewoman will lose their life. It won’t be to an IED on the battlefields of Iraq or Afghanistan. It will be to suicide on the battlefield of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and depression—right here at home. Every day, 19 soldiers take their own lives. Fifty percent of our homeless population is made up of veterans, and more than 250,000 veterans now suffer from PTSD. A 2004 Department of Defense study estimates that 17 to 20 percent of soldiers returning from Iraq “suffer from major depression, generalized anxiety, or PTSD.” And according to a 2008 report cited in Tears of a Warrior: A Family’s Story of Combat and Living with PTSD—a book the Veterans Administration uses in its PTSD treatment program— roughly 40,000 troops have been diagnosed since 2003.

It’s easy to slap a “Support Our Troops” magnet on the back of a vehicle to show solidarity in times of deployment, but where is that support when these men and women come home physically and emotionally broken? Where do they turn when society is not informed or empathetic enough to understand their state of mind, or when they are shamed into silence by the stigma of “mental illness”?

These are crucial questions too often left both unasked and unanswered. However, two guitarists with their hearts in the right place are doing their best to make a difference. Guitar instructor Patrick Nettesheim and guitar-playing Vietnam War veteran Dan Van Buskirk decided to take matters into their own hands by creating Guitars for Vets (G4V), a unique form of music therapy they’re taking to VA medical centers.

Founded in 2008, Guitars for Vets is a nonprofit that provides six free, one-on-one guitar lessons and a new acoustic guitar to veterans in recovery. Its mission is simple: Turn the guitar into a source of healing, communication, and self-expression. Veterans enrolled in the program receive their own new Oscar Schmidt acoustic guitar at their sixth lesson, and thereafter they can continue learning through group lessons. G4V began in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but has chapters in several other states—as well as one in Afghanistan—and it’s receiving requests from VA centers across the country. Six strings at a time, it’s working miracles.

Alan Harrison, E6 Boatswains Mate 1st Class, is a 21-year US Navy veteran who’s taking part in the Guitars for Vets program at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photo by Tim Evans

To Hell and Back Again
Van Buskirk and Nettesheim met in 2007, when Van Buskirk became Nettesheim’s guitar student. It was a fortuitous step on the long road to recovery for a lifetime pacifist who joined the military to uphold family duty.

Although the Peace Corps was his first calling, Van Buskirk joined the Marine Corps and became a reconnaissance scout and sniper during a time when, he says, “We were a bunch of young men confused by John Wayne movies, masculinity, and serving your country. I was assigned to Albrook, the hottest, best team battalion. We were on patrol schedules in Laos, and it was so dangerous that all the guys left letters and valuables for their loved ones because no one expected to return alive. Because Albrook was so good, the whole team would go on patrol. Except they wouldn’t let me go—I was too inexperienced. One day, the North Vietnamese set up an ambush for Albrook. They shot down the helicopter with a rocket and all the guys died.”

During Van Buskirk’s 1968-1969 tour, he did 40 patrols in Laos and Cambodia, lost his best friend there, and witnessed unspeakable horrors that remain with him today. Upon return, he was hospitalized for a year and told he had “shell shock,” as it was called then. “They didn’t know how to treat it,” he says. “I was in a deep, deep depression. You feel like you are in a black tunnel that has no light on the other side. I just wanted some light, but I couldn’t see it.”

Van Buskirk struggled to maintain a normal life. He married, became a father, worked, and went back to school to earn degrees in sociology and anthropology. Though he attempted to become an adjusted civilian, Vietnam never left him. “I mostly had a sense that ‘I just don’t get it,”’ he says. “It plagued me. Some people live joyously, but for veterans with PTSD, we’re in survival mode.” Van Buskirk still experiences flashbacks and nightmares.

In 2005, after losing two jobs, Van Buskirk was placed on full chronic disability. As part of his search for ways to deal with depression, he bought a guitar. He had tried playing years before, but lacked focus due to PTSD. Cream City Music, in Brookfield, Wisconsin, recommended Nettesheim as an instructor. The lessons became educational for both men: Van Buskirk learned to play, while Nettesheim learned about Vietnam and the struggles returning veterans faced. They realized they were on to something.

Guitars for Vets debuted in the Milwaukee VA spinal rehab unit, where Van Buskirk and Nettesheim performed for paralyzed veterans whose lives are spent in wheelchairs and on their backs. “Dan played ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ and we saw guys who had been staring at the ceiling for 40 years just light up,” says Nettesheim. “The smiles, the happiness—they would hold the guitars while I strummed them. I knew it was magic. These men with broken bodies, broken spirits, and no way out of their situations as prisoners of their own bodies—I saw the light in their eyes.” During their next lesson, Van Buskirk and Nettesheim put a plan in action and created Guitars for Vets.

A group of vets from the St. Louis, Missouri, chapter of G4V gathers to socialize and support each other through song. Photo by Glen Harris
Asked to explain the source of that rekindled light—why the guitar is a source of comfort— Nettesheim says, “How you hold it against your midsection—it’s a metaphoric shield. When you look at trauma as part of the human condition, in moments of sadness and weeping, you rock back and forth and hold a pillow or a teddy bear to your midsection. It’s an innate trait. The guitar is a good surrogate for that. It allows you to speak without words. The cool thing with the guitar, and many instruments, is the universal language: Others get what you’re feeling by what you play. It helps us communicate emotions that may be too difficult to verbalize. That’s why music touches so many people deeply.”