Veterans tap healing power of music in Hampton
“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.”
Playwright William Congreve coined that sentiment in 1697. Three centuries later, Dan Mathes is a poster boy for it.
Mathes, 54, came to the Hampton VA Medical Center in August carrying a lot of baggage from his 21 years in the Army. On a recent Friday afternoon, all of that was relegated to a back shelf of his mind as he caressed a shiny, new Yamaha acoustic guitar.
“It’s beautiful,” he told his guitar teacher, Mike Durig. “This is amazing.”
Mathes is one of more than 2,000 veterans who have completed a unique music therapy program designed for those who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and other forms of emotional distress.
The program is run by Guitars for Vets, a nonprofit organization that got its start in Milwaukee in 2007. There are 38 chapters around the country, including one in Hampton.
“We are growing exponentially,” said Peg Andrae, coordinator of the Hampton chapter. “The veterans who have come through the program are our best testimonial. They are so appreciative, and you can see a change in them.”
After referral by a medical care provider, vets get 10 weekly lessons from a volunteer instructor. At the end of the course, they get new guitars.
A pilot study in Milwaukee found that the program was effective in reducing symptoms of PTSD and depression and improving quality of life.
“I came in here with some real serious anger issues,” said Mathes, who has been diagnosed with PTSD. “This takes my mind off everything.”
Mathes said he sits in his room in the VA center’s residential treatment complex and practices for hours. As he does, a peaceful feeling envelops him, and the memories of trauma fade.
During his Army career, which ended in 2001, Mathes did stints as a hydraulic engineer, a marksman and a combat medic. He declined to talk about his combat experiences except to say: “I’ve been through hell.”
Until vets get their personal guitars, they use loaners donated by individuals and music companies. The nonprofit gets support from donors including the band Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Les Paul Foundation, which carries on the guitar pioneer’s legacy.
“This has helped me realize who I am again,” Mathes said. “Before, I was an ogre. I didn’t want to be around anybody. I just wanted to stay under my bridge.”
The course is an introduction to guitar basics, focusing on technique, music theory and sight reading.
Durig, a guitar teacher at Kecoughtan High School in Hampton, spent eight years as a Navy musician. He lives in Chesapeake.
Learning guitar is an ideal form of therapy because of the demands it places on the student, Durig said.
“This kind of musical training causes the two sides of the brain to talk to each other – the left, the logical side, and the right, the creative side,” he said. “It’s one of the few disciplines that require you to use both. It requires so much concentration, it’s hard to think of anything else.”
It’s particularly challenging for older vets, Durig said: “It’s difficult for an older person to pick up something new. It takes a lot of gumption. It takes you completely out of your comfort zone.”
The rewards are worth the effort, Mathes said. He’s talking up the program to fellow veterans of all ages, especially those who’ve come back from service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I’ve seen quite a few young soldiers here who are in a lot worse shape than I am,” he said, and he thinks they would benefit from guitar therapy.
After admiring it, Mathes gingerly cradled his new guitar and plucked out a simple melody with a pick as Durig counted the beat.
“Awesome,” Mathes said.
For him, this is just the beginning, he said. He is determined to continue honing his skills.
Does he harbor any hopes of playing in public?
It’s too early to think about that, he said: “I’m not ready to start signing autographs yet.”
In the end, Durig said, it doesn’t matter.
“The object isn’t to make him a famous guitar player. The object is to make him happy. That’s a good enough goal in itself.”