Eric Lewis, a 20-year veteran of the United States Navy, has faced the sort of difficulties through his life and career which might be unfathomable to a civilian. But music was there with him.
“It’s the only thing that keeps me level,” he says.
Knowing he was not the only veteran who saw music as a lifeline to the real world, he started Vet-Traxx Project, a Northern California non-profit organization which operates a recording studio where disabled veterans can play and record music as a means of therapy. He’s currently using the Post-9/11 GI Bill to pursue an Advanced Professional Certificate in Music Production using Pro Tools from Berklee Online.
Vet-Traxx Project works with veteran musicians and bands in which at least one member is a veteran, with particular attention to serving those who are suffering from disabilities such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“We see it, and we know what’s going on in our bodies: We can feel the rumble like an earthquake,” Eric says. “If my body feels off, I know there’s a PTSD moment ready to happen, because anything can trigger us. . . . I start grabbing at my neck, clawing at my neck. My leg starts bouncing. It’s weird. You just see my whole body transition, and you’re just thinking ‘he’s just nervous or something.’ And next thing you know, once you get to that point, you can’t stop it. It’s just got to run its course, so I’m just fortunate that I have the studio. I use it too. I’ll go out there and bang on my drums for hours on end, just to feel better.”
Eric began playing drums at the age of 13, and joined the Navy five years later. He played music when and where he could find time to make it fit alongside his career in the service: he had a stint with a band in San Diego which got picked up by an indie label, a side job as assistant manager at Guitar Center in Oxnard, and many trips to the National Association of Music Merchants convention, also known as NAMM. “I’m super antisocial, super high anxiety, but when you get music involved I’ll talk your ear off.”
Eric describes the adjustment to civilian life after retiring in 2014 as all hell breaking loose in his life. “Everything that I knew was gone,” he explains, “and I had this urge. We call it Kaleo; it’s a calling, like somebody pulling you to something. I had to be around veterans, because I just felt that I could relate. Musically, I could relate to anything.”
The logical place to focus his sense of siblinghood with fellow veterans and his basic need for a connection to music was in a studio, and this is where Vet-Traxx Project was born. Eric brought the idea to NAMM, and was met with an outpouring of support from companies across the industry. He only had to pay $600 out of pocket to build the studio from the ground up; everything else was donated.
The therapeutic benefits of Vet-Traxx are tangible. Stress, anxiety, and antisocial behavior decrease as self-esteem is built, and vets make connections with others who have had similar experiences, while they communicate their thoughts and feelings through the unique vehicle of music. Of the veterans suffering from PTSD, which include roughly 31 percent of veterans of the Vietnam War, 10 percent of veterans of the Gulf War, and 11 percent of veterans of the war in Afghanistan, Eric explains that around 50 percent have sought help. On average, 22 veterans suffering from PTSD commit suicide every day; this is the statistic which Eric and Vet-Traxx Project are trying hardest to fight. As he says, “we’re not going to be able to help everybody, but we are damned sure going to try.” Services to veterans are provided free of charge; at Vet-Traxx, they believe that veterans have already paid in time and service.
Vet-Traxx Project has served 25 veterans to date, and they currently work with eight bands. Three of their bands have put out music for worldwide distribution, and a Vet-Traxx record label is in the works. They host an annual festival in called Vetstock to bring a community together and showcase the positivity of music for those suffering from PTSD. Eric still reflects on the power of Vetstock 2017. “Last year resulted in three people getting help, not killing themselves,” he says. “So three lives saved was . . . I cried on stage. It was amazing. I was so proud of everything that we’d done.”
Eric’s work with Vet-Traxx Project also nudged him in the direction of advanced study in music production and artist management. Building on his prior knowledge of recording, he’s taking what he learns with Berklee Online directly into the studio week by week. “When I enrolled,” he says, “I was floored. I know there are crazy, insanely talented professors out there all over the world, but with Berklee I was floored. . . . From what I was recording last year to now it’s leaps and bounds above, and it’s because of Berklee, because they are VA accredited, I was able to use my GI Bill. . . . And now I’ve got some of my veterans that are interested in recording. I’m like, ‘Well, you’re a veteran. You’ve got your GI Bill. Let’s go to Berklee!’”
To learn more about Vet-Traxx Project, please visit vet-traxxproject.org.
Berklee Online proudly holds a Military Friendly School designation for 2018-2019. For more on how we support service members, veterans, and their families, please visit online.berklee.edu/military/overview.