Phil Schwartz was a member of a six-person special ops team in Vietnam, where the risk of being captured and compromising their mission was so high that team members only shared their first names with each other. Tasked with freeing American prisoners, Phil did six deployments between 1965 and 1968. He says the experience was so intense that his defense mechanisms made it so he didn’t even remember serving in Vietnam until 2017. With the help of a program called Soldier Songs and Voices he is working through the emotional turmoil that this flood of memories has caused.
“I had a lapse in memory of my time in Vietnam for over 50 years,” he says. “I suffer from PTSD real bad, and the writing is very therapeutic to me.”
Soldier Songs and Voices is just one of several programs that uses music and writing to help veterans with their struggles, whether those struggles be acclimating to civilian life, reconciling with their memories, or just finding a friend who will understand their frame of reference. The approaches these different organizations take varies widely, so veterans can find the right fit for their level of comfort, and for their level of musical experience.
Where an organization like Soldier Songs and Voices encourages veterans to use songwriting and poetry as a sort of cognitive processing therapy, a group like Music for Veterans focuses on helping veterans learn an instrument. Through learning an instrument they build confidence, and eventually showcase the musical skills they’ve developed through live performances in their communities.
Music for Veterans and Soldier Songs and Voices both began in 2011, and each have several chapters throughout the US.
Soldier Songs and Voices founder Dustin Welch says he started the group because as a touring musician, a song in his repertoire called “Sparrows” would frequently resonate with veterans.
“I had written a song about a returning Vietnam vet, and when I’d be out on the road I’d always play this song,” he recalls. “Never anywhere in the song does it identify this person as a veteran, but every single time I would play it, I would have a vet at the end of the night come up to me and ask ‘Is that song about what I think it’s about?’ And I would ask, ‘When did you serve?’ And I just kept hearing people say, ‘I’ve just always wanted to write a song’ and ‘I’ve wanted to learn how to play an instrument.’ And finally, after hearing this over and over all across the country, I said, ‘Well, we could just make this happen.’”
Soldier Songs and Voices helps veterans with songs and Music for Veterans helps veterans with instruments so it makes sense that the two have recently teamed up so that they can refer members to each other’s organizations.
“There’s power in numbers,” says Vinny Stefanelli, the director of Music for Veterans, “and even if we were doing the same exact thing—which we’re not—it would still make sense for us to get together and look for resources and look for opportunities and anything that can benefit and reach more veterans.”
Reaching more veterans is exactly what these organizations and programs like them need to do now. According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ 2022 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report, the average for veteran suicides was 16.8 per day in 2020, the most recent year that data is available for. According to the National Center for PTSD, more than 20 percent of veterans who suffer from PTSD also suffer from a substance abuse disorder.
What is especially beneficial about these musical support groups is that they not only offer veterans an outlet for creative expression, but a place to explore music with other veterans. Participants may not be in the same age group, but their experiences are similar.
“One of the things that I learned is that the camaraderie is just like it is with musicians,” says Vinny. “You meet a musician and you could say, ‘Hey, what instrument do you play?’ and we could talk for an hour about guitars or music, and that immediate camaraderie happens with veterans when they get together! … There’s a young guy who is in his forties, who served in Afghanistan and he’s sitting next to a Vietnam veteran. … It’s almost like they’ve known each other forever because they’ve shared similar past experiences.”
In addition to writing poetry, Phil Schwartz is also learning guitar.
“I always loved music, but the thing is, I’m getting into music now,” he says. “I’m almost 80 years old and I’m just starting to take guitar lessons, so I’m a late bloomer, I guess. I have a bad tremor, which makes it difficult, and that’s most likely from Agent Orange.”
The fact that he’s taking guitar lessons may even help bring him closer to his daughter, a Berklee alum who goes by the name of Jen Leigh, and has played with Michael Jackson and George Clinton.
“She thinks it’s great that I’m learning,” he says.
The environment of these groups is such that Phil will also be able to learn from fellow veterans. Not just about guitar, but about the healing properties of music.
John Gerac is also part of Phil’s branch of Soldier Songs and Voices in Greenville, SC: That’s John in the top right corner of the featured photo and Phil is seated in front of him. John says he began taking guitar lessons when he was 13, growing up in Lafayette, Louisiana. He started playing in bands a few years later, so when he enlisted in the Navy in 1969 he was asked to join a band on the ship.
“That got us out of a lot of work details because we’d play when they were doing underway replenishments, when they were bringing supplies aboard the ship,” he says about himself and the four other members of the group.
But music also helped him on an emotional level during that time.
“I’d sit on the deck in the middle of the ocean with my guitar, and just play as I’d watch the sunset or look at the stars,” he says. “The guitar, actually, in my opinion, was the big saving grace for me to get through the military. … It’s just a place to hide, so to speak.”
But after he got out of the Navy in 1975, he says he didn’t play guitar much, except for a few holiday gigs here and there. His involvement in the group has changed that.
“It’s such a comforting and warm environment to work in,” he says.
The value of a comforting and warm environment for veterans cannot be overstated, says Heath Nisbett. A board-certified music therapist, guitarist, and course developer for Berklee Online, he also volunteers for a veterans organization in his community called Tune It Out. The approach of this group is similar to Music for Veterans, where they provide guitars and they provide instruction as well as a forum for veterans to play music together. Although there is currently no live performance element for Tune It Out participants, Heath says just getting together to play music can be enough.
“It gives them a chance to meet other vets in the community in just a different dynamic that they hadn’t before,” he says. “It’s a relaxed environment for them to touch base with each other and talk and play.”
That dynamic of a shared experience is crucial to many veterans, especially in an age where the news cycle shifts public awareness from one conflict to the next, and the fallout from warfare isn’t always a part of the collective memory.
Beginning in 2009, Kim Perlak was working at three different colleges in Austin, Texas. That’s where she says she became more aware of the challenges faced by veterans re-entering civilian life, and how studying music may help them with that adjustment. Kim—who teaches Guitar for Beginners for Berklee Online and is the current chair of the Guitar Department at Berklee College of Music—was teaching an American popular music history class at Concordia University TX at the time. She was discussing music of the Vietnam era one day when she asked the 25 students in her class if anyone was keeping current with the latest updates about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only people who raised their hands were Kim, the three veterans in her class, and one woman whose husband was deployed at the time.
“So I said, ‘Let me ask you a question: If there was a draft and there was a chance that you or one of your family members would have to go, how many people would watch the news?’ And they all raised their hands,” she remembers. “I pointed at one student and asked, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘Because then it would matter to me.’ And then she just gasped, and said, ‘That’s so screwed up!’ And I asked, ‘Why?’ And she replied, ‘Because it really matters to people in this room and I should care about that.’ And then she started to cry and everybody became emotional, and the wife of the soldier who was deployed said, ‘Thank you for saying that because this is how I feel every day. I walk around here and feel like nobody cares.’”
In the next five years, Kim devoted a significant amount of her time to working with veterans. Beginning with a group in which she invited veterans to come play guitar with her during lunch break at one of the schools, she soon expanded the program to include groups on other campuses. Eventually enough veterans were participating that she needed to find a bigger, common venue, so she turned to a friend who served as Rector at St. David’s Episcopal Church, which was also a beloved community education center and professional music venue in the city. There, she met a veteran who serves as a chaplain, Lt Col (retired) Lynn Smith-Henry. He agreed to join the class as a guitarist and co-lead the group, which they called the Veterans Guitar Project–Austin. The VGP continues to this day, led by Lynn Smith-Henry. (Lynn visited Berklee College of Music in Boston last year to present with Kim about their work at the annual Music and Health Exchange, sponsored by the Berklee Music and Health Institute and Music Therapy department).
The Veterans Guitar Project–Austin was a natural partner for a non-profit concert project Kim was leading with her students at Concordia. In 2010, she teamed up with a young philanthropist she met during a guitar retreat in Hawaii and formed Ben & I Play for Peace, an annual concert which raised funds for Wheelchairs for Iraqi Kids, later expanding to support the Wounded Warrior Project—and finally for the Veterans Guitar Project-Austin. In the years that followed, the annual concerts and the VGP became a community affair, welcoming musicians, volunteers, and community leaders from across the city and inspiring listeners. Local and national businesses signed on to become sponsors, and television and radio stations in Austin provided publicity. She says that what may be more valuable than the money raised is the awareness raised.
“We have an awareness, and it’s deeper than ‘thank you for your service.’ It’s, ‘I have an awareness that you chose to put your life on the line for the wellbeing of our country. Now, here you are back home—and it’s going to be an adjustment to come to civilian life after that experience,’” she says. “And music is a way that people come to terms with experience, work with injuries that they have in a variety of capacities, and build community. It’s not a ‘healer’ in the sense that it doesn’t fix broken things automatically: Music helps you connect with experience, with others, with something bigger than you—and with yourself—if you’re willing. And that’s a beautiful experience, if you’re ready.”
The appearance of US Department of Defense (DoD) or military-themed visual information does not imply or constitute DoD endorsement.