Guitar program is music to vets' ears

  • Article by: PAUL LEVY PLEVY@STARTRIBUNE.COM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 10, 2012 - 11:46 PM

The Guitar for Vets program has offered many long-suffering veterans an escape through music.

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As Joe Carlton, a Gulf War Navy vet from Savage, strummed his guitar, volunteer guitarist Lucas Peterson, right, of Andover, was reflected in Carlton’s ­guitar. There is a weekly G4V jam session at the Brooklyn Park Veterans Center that usually includes about four veterans.

Jim Doten says he's always wanted to learn to play guitar. But with tours of duty in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, and jobs as a hydrologist and environmental inspector for the city of Minneapolis, he rarely had time -- and, often, no access to a guitar.

Then, a year ago, the Army National Guard master sergeant from St. Louis Park discovered Guitars for Vets, a four-year-old nonprofit organization that offers veterans the power of healing by providing them with music lessons and hand-crafted guitars made at the Wild Earth School in Hudson, Wis.

"It's the perfect stress reliever," Doten, 50, said of playing guitar. "It's offered me a very calm, inner peace."

Guitars for Vets began in 2008 in Milwaukee and now has 26 chapters in 14 states -- including chapters in Brooklyn Center and New Brighton. Funding is being sought for another chapter at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, said Cynthia Gilane, Guitars for Vets business manager in Milwaukee. There also is a chapter in Afghanistan.

The program grew from conversations between Milwaukee guitar instructor Patrick Nettersheim and one of his students, Dan Van Buskirk, a Vietnam War vet.

Van Buskirk, a lifetime pacifist, says he joined the Marines to fulfill a family obligation. During his 1968-69 tour of duty, he took part in 40 patrols in Laos and Cambodia. His best friend was killed, and he said he witnessed countless atrocities. When he returned home, he was hospitalized for a year, suffering from severe depression. "Shell shock," he called it.

"You feel like you are in a black tunnel that has no light on the other side," he was quoted as saying on the Internet site premierguitar.com.

By 2005, he was still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that included nightmares and flashbacks. He'd lost two jobs and was placed on chronic disability. To deal with his depression, Van Buskirk bought a guitar and was soon introduced to Nettesheim.

Nettesheim would teach Van Buskirk how to play guitar. Van Buskirk would teach Nettesheim about the struggles of returning veterans. Guitars for Veterans was born -- in the spinal rehab unit of Milwaukee's VA medical center -- with Van Buskirk playing "Knockin' on Heaven's Door" and eliciting smiles that hadn't been seen in eons.

The program is aimed at veterans in recovery -- veterans who have come home in need of physical and/or emotional repair. Each veteran is given six lessons and a guitar.

At the Vet Center in Brooklyn Park, 23 veterans spanning three generations have completed the program, said Bernard Beamon, the center's team leader.

"Nothing heals like the power of music," Beamon said. "It's nontraditional therapy, in a sense. But it's teaching some veterans new skills and allowing others to reacquaint themselves with the guitar.

"I've watched these veterans connect with their instructors during those 30-minute sessions," Beamon said. "And the instructors are getting something out of it, too. Within a week of our announcing the program two years ago, we had 20 guitarists lined up to give lessons."

Joseph Carlton, 54, of Savage was among the veterans who wanted to learn to play. He'd heard about the Guitar for Vets program while doing volunteer work at the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis.

Carlton now works with a second-shift maintenance support crew with Delta Air Lines. From 1979 to 1999, he was in the Navy, traveling to Europe, Africa, Australia, Japan, the Persian Gulf and the Philippines, working as a radio operator.

He's now learning how to play songs he's heard on the radio.

"I'm just learning to strum chords," Carlton said. "It takes a lot of practice. You're constantly exercising your fingers. Sometimes, it hurts. But it's a good kind of hurt."

Jim Doten understands the healing power of the guitar. Doten won't make anybody forget Eric Clapton or Jimi Hendrix. But it's what Doten hasn't forgotten that leads him back to his six-string.

When a group of Red Bulls were blown up by rocket fire in Iraq, one of his tasks was to "clear out" the compound.

"They didn't want guys who knew them well to carry the weight," Doten said. "But that was hard.

"When I learned about Guitars for Vets, Bernard [Beamon] thought I'd be a candidate for the first round of vets."

He was scheduled to return to Afghanistan in April. But he was thinking of other locations, as well.

" 'California Dreamin,' " he said. "That's what I want to learn to play on my guitar."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419

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