Guitars For Vets: The Healing Power Of Music In The Hands Of Heroes

By Joel Waldinger | October 27, 2016


His entire life Patrick Nettesheim knew what he wanted to be. Even at just four years of age Patrick knew. He wanted to be a guitar player and at the same time help heal people. But he didn’t know how he would combine the two.

In 2006, he met  Dan Van Buskirk, a Vietnam veteran who was in need of healing from PTSD, or post traumatic stress disorder. Nettesheim used his guitar lessons to not only teach Van Buskirk how to play, but help him cope with his PTSD.

“We just hit it off right away and the lessons were really meaningful because we were like a couple of brothers coming together and we could just share so much with each other,” Nettesheim said. 

Nettesheim learned just as much from Van Buskirk during the guitar lessons.

“I didn’t know a lot about Vietnam. Dan opened up and he shared with me a lot of wonderful stories, a lot of terribly tragic stories,” Nettesheim said. “When you put this guitar in the hands of somebody that is sinking deeply into depression, it opens up a window of serenity for them, enough that they can understand that they are capable of feeling good again.”

After just a few lessons Patrick and Dan knew they were on to something.

“When Patrick and I were taking lessons, I enjoyed it so much I suggested that we go down to the VA in Milwaukee, the Clement J. Zablocki Medical Center to play for men and women in spinal rehab,” Van Buskirk said.

What happened that day was much bigger than either man could imagine. That initial visit to the spinal rehab center struck a chord with Van Buskirk and Nettesheim and they knew they wanted to do more. That simple gesture, that simple strum of the guitar started a movement. The two launched a local guitar program that soon went national and called it Guitars for Vets with the slogan, ‘the healing power of music in the hands of heroes’. 

“It’s an extension of the good things I learned in the Marine Corps.  It’s an extension of “I got your back” kind of love. If we drop guitars rather than bombs, maybe people would change their point of view,” Van Buskirk said. 

Interested veterans are referred by their caseworkers and VA Medical Centers. They are teamed with a guitar teacher and the free lessons are part of their therapy, part of their healing, part of becoming whole again. After the 10th lesson they graduate and are given a certificate, a new guitar, a tuner, a guitar strap, a guitar stand, string winder, strings and picks. After graduation, the veterans are encouraged to return to group lessons or group jams to continue building that sense of teamwork and comradery. 

Guitars for Vets has caught the attention of some famous rockers, including Dick Wagner, a guitar player for Alice Cooper, and Earl Schlick, who played with David Bowie. The Les Paul Foundation is also a supporter of Guitars for Vets and Leonard Skynyrd  donated $10,000.

With that kind of support Guitars for Vets now has 60 chapters in 30 states. Guitars for Vets has given away more than 2,000 new guitars and provided over 20,000 lessons with the help of more than 200 volunteers nationwide.

Today, Van Buskirk says he doesn’t worry too much, he just plays. He likes the feeling of harmony and sense of peace he gets from playing. And as for Nettesheim– even as a four year old he knew he wanted to help heal, he just didn’t realize it would be with his guitar.

Guitars For Vets: Worldwide Appeal

The idea behind using guitars to help heal is catching the attention of other militaries around the world including England, Germany and Russia.

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger

Joel Waldinger is a reporter for the “Wisconsin Life” project and considers a sunset over the “big island” on Manson Lake to be a perfect ending to a day of fishing and fun in the Northwoods. 

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