Guitars For Vets: Giving Peace A Chance

This interview is dedicated to my nephew Josh Davis, who is currently serving in Afghanistan, and all the men and women who have served in the military for our country. Thank you for all you have done for us.

For decades now, American military men and women have been coming home after deployment different from when they left for their mission. After battle in war-torn counties they would come home with visible wounds people could see: missing limbs, disfigurement, and scars. Then there are the wounds you cannot see.

During the Civil War, it was called “Soldier’s Heart.” Then it was “Shell Shock” in the First World War. By the Second World War, the condition’s name changed once again to “Combat Fatigue,” a term which was used throughout the Korean War. By the time Vietnam rolled around in the1960s, the soldiers were said to have “Situational Disorders.” As of 2008, the Vietnam Conflict Extract Data File of the Defense Casualty Analysis System (DCAS) has recorded 58,220 U.S. military fatal casualties of the Vietnam War. Shocking, yes. But more shocking is the fact that more soldiers have committed suicide since the Vietnam War (due to PTSD-related issues) than died in actual battle.

Dan Van Buskirk & Patrick Nettesheim give veteran Gary the first guitar.

All of those incorrect diagnoses were pushed aside in the 1980s, when the American Psychiatric Association (APA) correctly called the condition Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in the third edition of its Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III). Since 1986, the U.S. military has used the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for their men and women who have struggled adapting to civilian society after coming home from war.

There are several ways for people to cope with PTSD, from pharmaceuticals to service dogs to therapy to strong family support. Others find support in the arts, with such outlets as painting, drawing, and writing. However, the folks at Guitars for Vets have taken a different approach. Guitars for Vets have adopted a hands-on approach, using the acoustic guitar to help war veterans suffering from the evils of PTSD.

Guitars for Vets co-founder Patrick Nettesheim, a talented musician himself, has been writing music since he was 8-years-old and has been in various bands over the years.

“When I was six, I knew I wanted to be a rock star, but that never happened,” Nettesheim said from the Guitars for Vets home office outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “My first band was in high school and we were called Oblivion and that is where we ended up. Then I went to college at University of Wisconsin at Whitewater where I was the long hair kid and didn’t fit in. The only other guy there with long hair was the local drug dealer and I got tired of being mistaken for him. I got into a thrash metal band named Black Medallion. We signed to Enigma Records and then we imploded. So, I decided maybe I should have a backup plan. I took classes in college with the idea of working in the medical field, but I couldn’t get this music bug out of me. I followed that path doing anything I could to make a living. I was teaching guitar since I was 16 and I stuck with that building up a big client list. At one time, I was teaching 60 people a week and played in bands. I was doing the singer-songwriter stuff, playing in a rock & roll band, and I was playing piano in a jazz band.”

In 2006, a new guitar student, Dan Van Buskirk, came to Nettesheim looking for lessons, and it almost didn’t happen, but fate stepped in.

“The funny thing about Dan is, he called me and I didn’t call him back for like a week. By the time I got around to calling him back, he already found another guitar teacher. I apologized for being late and wished him the best, but we struck up a conversation and he asked me about my teaching style. He liked what I had to offer and said, ‘when can we start?’

Guitar For Vets Chicago Alumni

“Turns out, Dan was a Vietnam vet who served in Vietnam as first Marine recon in 1968-69. The more lessons we got into, the more I learned about him as a person. He was struggling with PTSD. He had night terrors, all that pain and obsessive trance, all those times you can’t get your mind off the shit you are going through. Here’s a guy who feels like a failure because he can’t get past this PTSD and thinks the only thing he is good at is shooting a rifle and he doesn’t even want to get near a gun again.

“I asked him, when was the last time you were happy and he didn’t know. I asked him what makes you feel comfortable and he said music. Then I started giving him homework along with his guitar lessons. I would tell him to go listen to music for at least 10 minutes a day and I slowly started to see a change in him. As the lessons progressed, he had passion. He had what I call “playing guitar opens up windows of serenity.”

Nettesheim and Van Buskirk became more than teacher and student. They became friends. On one particular day, Van Buskirk asked his teacher to go down to the local Veterans Administration Hospital with him to play a couple songs for the war veterans. Nettesheim was apprehensive, but gave Van Buskirk an hour out of his busy schedule.

“We went down to the VA and played in the spinal rehab center for an hour and it was amazing. It literally changed my life. So, we went back the next week and played for two hours, then three hours. One day on the way to the VA I stopped by Cream City Music to get some strings or something and talked to my friend Joe Gallenberger. He was taken aback at what me and Dan were doing because his Dad was a Korean war vet and he literally gave us a couple guitars to give away to the war vets down at the VA.”

The seed was planted. Nettesheim and Van Buskirk considered the great potential and agreed to take it further. They set up the 501CF nonprofit where donations are tax deductible and kept the name simple—Guitars for Vets. Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold heard about the project and helped the guys to get their nonprofit through quickly, and within a month, Guitars for Vets was up and running in 2008.

Patrick Nettesheim teaching Guitars for Vets first student, Gary

“The vets are referred to us by their case worker at the VA who helps us out,” Nettesheim explained of the process. “First and foremost, the vets have to be stable enough to go to lessons. They get 10 private lessons given by a volunteer, then if they complete the 10 lessons they get to keep the guitar we loaned them or get a new one which is provided to us. We get our guitars from Yamaha and our sponsors who donate and support time and money or equipment. Any resources we welcome.”

With the help of variety of sponsors, including Gibson Foundation, Les Paul Foundations, Dean Zelinsky, Taylor, Yamaha, G&L Guitars, and many more, Guitars for Vets have given 30,000 lessons, and 3,000 veterans graduate with a new guitar in hand.

To better serve the veterans who receive guitars, Guitars for Vets have eight ambassadors, including Earl Slick who played on eight David Bowie and two John Lennon & Yoko Ono albums; Australian fingerstyle guitarist Tommy Emmanuel; Ron Keel, singer songwriter and DJ at KBAD 94.5; The late Dick Wagner who had worked with Alice Cooper, Lou Reed, and Kiss; Jim McCarty who has been a fixture in music for years playing in the bands Cactus, Mitch Ryder, the Detroit Wheels, and Buddy Miles; Joey Holland of Badfinger; and Billy Hallquist and Billy J. Kramer, who have between them over 50 years as professional guitarists.

“The ambassadors preach the good word for Guitars for Vets. They are our apostles. They tell people about what we are doing, spreading the word at shows; meeting vets, giving encouragement, plastering places with stickers and information, they do it all.”

Since their formation, Guitars for Vets has taken their mission from the greater Milwaukee area to a nationwide resource for veterans. One of the ways Guitars for Vets reaches people are what they call “local chapters.” In all, there are over 60 local chapters spread out over 31 states.

“The local chapters are places that administer the Guitar for Vets programs who do the same thing we have done here. They teach guitar at VA Hospitals, help vets, not only with their guitar playing, but their emotional well-being. The veteran centers refer someone who is looking to start a local chapter to us and we give them the ok. Before anything is started, we want to make sure our message and mission is the same, no matter what chapter a vet goes to.”

All Guitars for Vets lessons and guitars are provided to the veterans free of charge. Demand for the program continues to rise, and though virtually all resources go directly into the program and guitars, they sadly cannot help every qualified applicant because funding is limited. With your help, Guitars for Vets can bring more lessons and guitars to the Veterans with donations of money, guitars, and related gear.

“We started when the economy was in the crash of 2008; money is our biggest issue by far. We have been struggling since day one essentially, but we’ve built up the program to have three full time employees and two part timers so no one is getting rich off this thing. That’s not even an issue,” Nettesheim said. “I have to admit though, last year was our watermark year. We did the best we have ever done, but there are still things that need to be done to help these vets who gave everything they had to this country. One of the things nonprofits run into is 100 percent of the funds should go to the cause. But it doesn’t work like that. People need to make a living to keep things like this going.”

Ask why he keeps doing this after nine years of nonstop work and battling money woes and more importantly, the emotional strain it takes to help these vets, and Patrick Nettesheim simply says “I am very sympathetic for those who serve. I never served in the military. This is my way of serving,”

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