Cigar box guitars liven up Virginia vets battling PTSD
In October 1983, suicide bombers drove two trucks full of explosives into American and French barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. Paul “Chip” McCauley was injured in the attack. Thirty-nine years later, he uses a cigar box guitar to remember men who have been lost.
“I lost 241 friends that day,” McCauley, 58, of Salem said in a recent interview. “My guitar is a tribute to these guys. The better I understand, the longer they will live through my music.
McCauley grew up in Roanoke and served in the United States Marine Corps Reconnaissance from 1983 to 1987. He was one of three veterans to participate in a recent 12-week cigar guitar-making band led by Beth Woodward, music therapist at Salem Veterans Affairs Medical. Center.
The therapist had received funding from the Veterans Health Administration that enabled her to purchase 16 cigar guitar making kits, enough for four groups of outpatients.
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Woodward previously worked with McCauley, Matthew “Matt” Burke, 52, of Narrows and Mark “Red” Redmond, 45, of Forest in a music therapy and wellness group at the VA.
They weren’t all in the wellness group at the same time, but Woodward thought the men, who have all been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, would work well together and invited them to join the first group. guitar manufacturing.
“They were my experience,” Woodward said. “They actually talked about coming back and helping me with the new guys coming in.”
The group met between January and June for a 90 minute session approximately once a week. They built their cigar box guitars, then decorated them. Redmond, who served in the US military from 1999 to 2015 as a forward observer and later in intelligence, introduced the group to wood burning techniques.
“I didn’t even think about it. I was just thinking of painting and staining,” Woodward said. “They took it up a notch. So now the next time I get funding, I’ll get the woodburning tools, so we’ll have even more to do.
“It was really fun to get together as a group,” Redmond said. “There was a lot of wise cracking, and just a good time to put it together, help each other. We each bring different tools. Each of us brings something different to the fight.
At the end of the program, after the men had built the three-stringed instruments and learned to play them, they wrote a song called “The PTSD Blues.”
“Beth said, ‘We’re gonna write a song,’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, okay,'” McCauley recalled. “She brought a painting and asked us questions. And we put words on the board, and it became the song. It was amazing how it happened.
The song was recorded and presented at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival as artwork, as a musical performance and as an original song, Woodward said.
“Hopefully they can make it to the National Festival,” Woodward said, adding that the group could find out if they placed first in any category by the spring of 2023.
“The PTSD Blues” is about the camaraderie McCauley, Burke and Redmond found in each other.
“None of us liked the group. None of us liked being around crowds,” McCauley said. “But we have a bond now. They’re my brothers. same place, but we certainly shod some of the same dirt. And they mean a lot to me. We’re friends, and we’ll be friends for life now that we know each other.”
“We’re comfortable with each other, whereas I wouldn’t have signed up and done a band like this at the Civic Center or something like that. It’s not going to happen,” said Burke, who served in the US Army from 1987 to 1999 as a flight medic. “Here, I don’t feel like I have to watch my back or pay attention to what she’s doing when she’s in my peripheral vision. We can all relax a bit.
Redmond said he recently visited some “former Army buddies” who are retired but still live near Armed Forces bases.
“They see people in uniform every day. They still have that group,” Redmond said. “But when you’re not near a military post, or a marine base or whatever, you don’t have that. And then you’re put in a group like this, and then you’re like, ‘Oh, okay. I can do it.'”
Woodward said the guitar — an instrument that’s accessible and easy to learn to play — is especially good at grounding people who might be having a flashback.
“You can start playing songs that are meaningful to you or that validate your emotions, then slowly transition to something more upbeat and positive to help regulate mood,” Woodward says.
Treatment goals for the guitar-making group included the development of “creative artistic leisure activities” that can be used as coping skills for PTSD and increasing the ability to express emotions both verbally and non-verbally. .
Each of the veteran’s guitars has been uniquely furnished to convey these expressions. Redmond’s guitar features the various units he deployed with in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. And Burke’s guitar is a tribute to one of his service dogs, a dachshund named Patches, who died in 2020.
“I have a piece of his hair and his ashes. When I’m home, they’re close at hand,” Burke said.
McCauley’s guitar commemorates the 241 men who died in Beirut on October 23, 1983. On the anniversary of last month’s bombing, McCauley kept the guitar close to him throughout the day.
“All day,” McCauley said. “It helps. Music therapy has been the biggest help for me. I’ve been in therapy here at the VA since 2009. I was introduced to Beth a few years ago, and it’s been the biggest help for me, because that the guitar anchors me faster. All of your senses are engaged when you have to hold the guitar. And it gets me back to where I’m supposed to be much faster than any other therapy I’ve had. It’s been huge.
“That’s what concerns us,” Redmond said. “We’re all about it. It’s worked. I drive over an hour here. But it’s worth it, it’s worth it. There are no complaints. My wife will be moving stuff around to make sure I can hang out here because she knows it’s crucial for me which is good for the family.
Redmond said that while PTSD-related flashbacks still occur, dealing with them has become easier since working with Woodward.
“When I was deployed, I occasionally played a regular guitar. I was never good at it, but the love of music for me was already there,” Redmond said. “Beth just showed more why I always wanted to hang out after some engagement and smoke a cigarette and just strum my guitar on my own, how grounded it was.”
“It’s about learning how to cope, how to modulate your mood, how to regulate your emotions,” Woodward said. “Music is very holistic. It affects everyone – mind, body, spirit – so it’s a very good tool, a very good medium.
A non-profit organization called Guitars 4 Vets (G4V) offers a guitar education program for veterans with PTSD with similar goals.
“Music helps decrease anxiety, increase self-esteem, and reduce episodes of panic attacks, nightmares, and flashbacks,” reads the association’s website. “A research study of Guitars 4 Vets students showed a 21% improvement in PTSD symptoms and a 27% decrease in associated depression symptoms.”
The local chapter of G4V in Salem offers a 10-week program, taught by volunteer musicians and veterans.
“It’s very supportive in nature. It’s very social. It’s more of a peer support type program,” said Woodward, the VA liaison for the program. “It’s not therapy, but it provides benefits to patients, to veterans, provides social support. It is a community partnership program.
The Salem chapter has been around for nearly three years, Woodward said, but hasn’t been able to meet in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first in-person, face-to-face session was scheduled to begin Nov. 7 with six beginner players and 10 intermediate players, plus two instructors.
“They come in and they learn, and at the end of the 10 weeks, as long as they’re okay and they want to carry on, they get a new guitar strap, a capo, a tuner, and then they have the option to carry on come with a middle group,” Woodward said.
Woodward said G4V also provides a “means of continuity” for music therapy veterans.
“A lot of times when we’re working with patients, for coping skills or for different areas, when they leave music therapy, there’s not much in the community for people to have that kind of support” , she said. “Community partnership programs provide more support to our veterans in the community and help with integration.
If you would like to donate to the G4V Salem chapter, visit its fundraising page, which can be found on the G4V website, guitars4vets.org.