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Veterans learn guitar, find friendship in Florida VA clinic

By KATIE KUSTURA | The News-Journal (Daytona Beach, Fla.) | Published: May 8, 2019

DELTONA, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — Inside the Veterans Affairs outpatient clinic, psychologist Dr. Robin Reed hears joyful noise coming from the other side of the office every Friday at 1 p.m.

The group of veterans making the lovely sounds couldn't be more grateful for the opportunity to do so because it helps keep them alive.

Since the Deltona chapter of Guitars for Vets formed last October, veterans from West Volusia and parts of Seminole County have been getting together to learn how to play the guitar with others who have shared in the overwhelming experience of wars that left most of them with some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The end product, we're learning some music, but that wasn't the thing that got us together," said 68-year-old Phillip Loranger, a Deltona resident and Army veteran who fought in Vietnam, Panama and Desert Storm. "Every one of us in here has an issue, and we've been dealing with the issue by ourselves. Now we're dealing with our (expletive) collectively."

Guitars for Vets is a nonprofit based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with most states having at least one chapter. The organization, which uses Yamaha acoustic guitars, was formed in 2007 by guitar instructor Patrick Nettesheim and Vietnam-era veteran Dan Van Buskirk.

The goal of the nonprofit, according to its website, is "to share the healing power of music by providing free guitar instruction, a new acoustic guitar and a guitar accessory kit in a structured program run by volunteers, primarily through the Department of Veterans Affairs facilities and community-based medical centers."

Army veteran and Deltona resident Joe Sgarlata said he and two other Vietnam-era veterans — Chris Princler, who served in the Army, and Paul Bearden, who served in the Air Force and was stationed in the Philippines — met in a therapy group where they often found themselves talking about guitars and music.

Sgarlata, 71, thought some sort of music therapy program would be beneficial. With help from Reed, Sgarlata started Volusia County's second chapter of Guitars for Vets. The first chapter is based in the Port Orange/New Smyrna Beach area.

Studies show the benefits of music therapy include: a decrease in anxiety and depression; reduced muscle tension; improved interpersonal relationships and group cohesiveness; improved ability to recognize and cope with triggers of trauma; and improved self-esteem, according to the American Music Therapy Association.

"We all have some medical issue that prevents us from moving forward at everybody else's pace," said 64-year-old Felix Ruiz, a Sanford resident and Air Force veteran who also fought in Vietnam.

The stresses that come from war can take a great toll on survivors. The VA's most recent estimate is that about 20 veterans die by suicide every day.

The members of the Deltona chapter of Guitars for Vets, some of whom had prior experience with music, said the group helps them not become a part of that statistic.

"Some of us are a little more advanced than other players, and we want to take and give back music as a therapy because a lot of us have PTSD," said Princler, 62, after a recent group practice session at Loranger's home.

Keith Reilly, 52, an Orange City resident and Marine veteran who fought in Desert Storm, admitted he knew very little about guitars other than what they looked like before joining the group.

The veterans shared a laugh when Sgarlata reminded them about the time Reilly confused a capo, a device used to change the playable length of the strings, for a cigarette holder.

Last Friday, the group gathered at the VA clinic in Deltona to put on a mini-concert and show off what they'd learned. They played songs they grew up with that were limited to a few chords. Sgarlata played the harmonica during some of the songs, and Deltona resident and Army veteran Bernard Jones, 72, who fought in Vietnam, played conga drums when he wasn't playing the guitar.

The group started with Eagles' "Peaceful Easy Feeling." The rest of the set list included Ben E. King's "Stand by Me," Wayne Cochran's "Last Kiss," Jimmy Buffet's "Margaritaville," The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun," and Santana's "Oye Como Va."

After the concert, the band received rounds of applause from attendees and a personal check for $1,000 from Deltona City Manager Jane Shang.

To thank Reed for her support, the group presented her with a plaque and a guitar signed by each member of the first class.

"I hear music, I hear the laughter, I hear the joy, and that brings joy to my heart, knowing that these men have gotten together and built friendships, built skills," Reed said. "To be a sponsor is really an honor."

With another class for beginners starting soon, Sgarlata said he expects the original group will continue to get together to jam and talk about their experiences.

"We wanted companionship," Sgarlata said. "There's nothing like seeing somebody who is going through what you're going through or feels the way you do."

©2019 The News-Journal, Daytona Beach, Fla.

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