Posted on: Friday, March 15, 2019
Guitars for Vets
Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas
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U.S. Army Veteran Ronald Williams takes his first guitar lesson with instructor David Champlin as part of Guitar for Vets. The program provides 10 lessons and an acoustic guitar to the Veteran free of charge.

Each Tuesday morning in the Community Living Center Relaxation Room of the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center, the gentle sounds of strumming guitars can be heard as inpatients learn to play.

Guitars for Vets is a non-profit organization that provides 10 individual guitar lessons to Veterans struggling with physical injuries or emotional distress. Once lessons have been completed, the Veteran receives a free acoustic guitar.

The program is a great way to get patients out of their rooms and interacting with others.

“I was pretty-much staying in bed, except for physical therapy,” said Army Veteran Ronald Williams. “I was bummed out about the whole situation. My ability to walk had diminished and I was just sitting in my room trying to be positive.”

While in his room, Williams was visited by Art Therapist Sheryl Corbit who spoke about various activities available to Veterans. Williams was sold when she mentioned guitar classes.

“I toyed with it once,” he said. “I may as well try again.”

Williams used to play guitar left-handed, but a surgery to fuse his right wrist left him with limited dexterity in his fingering hand. Now, the determined Veteran is trying to learn to play right-handed.

“Everything in my brain wants to go the other way,” he said. “It’s amazing how much I am going to have to relearn.”

 Students are taught basic chords and songs. One of the first songs they learn is Amazing Grace, which provides a good foundation.

“Playing the guitar is relaxing, reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, and helps to alleviate depression,” said Corbit.

That certainly was the case for Army Veteran Guadalupe Alvarado, who has been an inpatient for 14 months. He said the program has been instrumental in getting him out of his room to socialize with his fellow Veterans. Alvarado, a program graduate, often shows up in the Relaxation Room to watch others receive a lesson. It’s a chance for him to reinforce what he already has learned.

“I like to hear a little bit more,” he said. “The more I learn, the more I can play.”

Alvarado got involved in Guitars for Vets because he, too, found himself spending too much time alone in his room.

“I got depressed from being lonely all of the time,” he said. “That’s why I got involved with this program and other art therapy programs. It’s nice to have someone to talk to.”

Corbit said she tries to invite everyone on the inpatient floor to join either her art group or Guitars for Vets.

“I see the Vets coming to the group and their attitude seems to lighten and improve,” she said. “Not only are they learning, but they seem to feel good about themselves. It improves their self-esteem.”

Williams sure lit up when the guitar was placed into his hands. Even though the natural lefty is having to relearn everything, he remains excited for the challenge.

“The important thing is to play as good as you can and have fun,” he said. “I made some progress after one lesson. I can already see what is possible.”
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