Milwaukee's 'Guitars For Vets' Helps Veterans With PTSD One Guitar At A Time

Nov 11, 2019

During World War I, soldiers coined the term "shell shock" to describe their post-traumatic reactions to war. "Battle fatigue" came along during World War II and Korea, and by Vietnam it was called "combat stress reaction." It was all post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Accounts of PTSD are recorded in ancient literature, including the Epic of Gilgamesh from 2100 BC. The Veterans Health Administration says about 15% of the Vietnam veterans it treats suffer from some form of PTSD. It can be as high as 20% of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans.

There are a lot of treatment options available to veterans who suffer from PTSD. One local nonprofit organization that works with the VA uses music, specifically guitars.

Co-founded in 2007 by guitar instructor Patrick Nettesheim and Marine Corps veteran Dan Van Buskirk, Guitars for Vets provides free guitars and lessons to any veteran who's interested. The Milwaukee-based nonprofit organization operates over 80 chapters in 43 states with over 200 volunteers nationwide. The organization is funded by donations and corporate sponsors like Yamaha and Gibson, which help provide acoustic guitars and accessories.

"Like a rifle, we're holding [the guitar] close to our body. But it's reaching our soul, which a rifle can't do." - Van Buskirk

"When we play the guitar, even simple three chords, it’s just such a beautiful sound. Like a rifle, we're holding it close to our body. But it's reaching our soul, which a rifle can't do," says Van Buskirk, who suffers from combat-related PTSD.

The veterans get to keep the guitars after 10 private lessons and then graduate onto group lessons, where teamwork and camaraderie is encouraged.

"It continues to pay itself forward as more people in the community see the results," Nettesheim says.

Nettesheim and Buskirk, who worked unpaid for the first seven years, say that with the proper funding they have the opportunity to grow to 1,000 chapters in every state.

"As a vet struggling with PTSD from combat, I needed harmony in my life and I needed to refine myself from the triggers of war," Van Buskirk said. "It's a constant refinement, a lifelong refinement."

Guitars for Vets is staging its annual Rock to Remember event on Veteran's Day 2019. The free event takes place at Best Place at the Historic Pabst Brewery. It features veteran musicians from the Guitars For Vets program, Milwaukee's Rolling Stones tribute band Shattered, Guitars for Vets rockers Kharma Shotgun and The Us Project, featuring Scott E Berendt of Bad Boy!