Veterans Find Ways to Express Themselves at Heroes’ Voices

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By 2006, politicians realized that American forces in Afghanistan and Iraq weren’t fighting the World War II style mass-on-mass, force-on-force conflicts for which soldiers were trained.  Instead, the U.S. military battled guerillas who hid amongst and struck from within civilian populations.  Then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told critics of his military preparedness policy that “You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

As with the Vietnam War, the consequences of this miscalculation followed soldiers home from the battlefield into the military health care system, where “the Army you have” met the Veteran’s Administration (VA) we have.  The VA is the world’s best medical system for treating battlefield injuries from gunshot and shrapnel.   But it struggles with unanticipated damage caused by what some military officials believe was an intent to traumatically wound, rather than kill, soldiers.  A dead soldier is buried.  Cerebrally traumatized soldiers bring the psychological terror of war back home; their collective treatment for post-traumatic stress injuries diverts money from battlefields to health care.

American soldiers returned stateside with post-traumatic stress injuries to crowded VA centers, wounds that weren’t cured by womanning- or manning- up, including the mental toil caused by memories of dead buddies and children killed because they were used as human shields.   Things that U.S. soldiers didn’t want to think or talk about in the theatre bubbled up to the cognitive surface as Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) injuries when they returned home from one or more deployments.

According to Kristin Grillo, a VA music therapist, traumatic stress injuries expunged sufferers from their soul, or the essence that connected them to the great chain of being at the deepest levels.  Then, ‘…cut off from the world, you live life trapped in your head.’

Rick Harrell believes that the severed connection between soul and being can be reestablished through music.   An internationally recognized opera stage director, Harrell met soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines in airports when he was traveling to bring music to foreign audiences.

Inspired by their service and troubled by their prolonged cognitive processing injuries, Harrell started Heroes’ Voices to bring the healing power of creatively stimulating music to that most important of domestic audiences:  veterans.   Senator Barbara Boxer helped connect Heroes Voices to Northern California VA centers –including Fort Miley in San Francisco – and to veterans in correctional facilities.  With the help of Grillo, Dr. Ben Graham, and others, Heroes’ Voices launched a series of musically oriented workshops designed to bring the therapeutic benefits of singing, poetry and guitar playing to veterans suffering from PTSD and substance abuse.

Once a participant completes five lessons with famed local guitarist Larry Chung they earn a free guitar, donated by Gryphon Strings of Palo Alto.  After eight sessions, a group of veterans play together enough times to relearn a degree of small unit-like coping, self-expression, communication and bonding skills.  As Heroes’ Voices advisor Richard Gibson put it, ‘learn how to play well enough and it becomes musician heal thyself.’  As they learn, teach one other, share poetry and jam together veterans benefit from making beautiful, and sometimes not so beautiful, music together.

“I was very depressed and angry before starting the guitar program. Now I have an outlet to channel these feelings,” said one participant.

A Texas Street resident, Matsuda is an academic anthropologist who serves as a cultural advisor to the U.S. military.