On a rainy and cold Sunday night in Oak Harbor, the sound of laughter and imperfect guitar strumming filled the room at Click Music with warmth.
What looked like a gathering of lifelong friends was in reality a weekly jam session involving guitar instructors and students who have generally known each other for less than a year.
A year ago, some of those students wouldn’t have imagined themselves playing an instrument in front of other people, but there they were now, joking around and giving each other words of encouragement.
Among them, Oak Harbor resident Gary Raster perhaps had the biggest smile.
“I don’t do people,” he had said just a few days before.
He had also said he didn’t do parades, either. But on Veterans Day, he paraded on Pioneer Way as a member of the Guitars for Vets group.
Guitars for Vets is a nonprofit that was founded in Wisconsin in 2007 and counts more than 130 chapters in over 40 states, created with the goal of helping veterans with diagnosed mental or physical disabilities that resulted from serving. The program provides 10 private guitar lessons, a practice guitar and a guitar donated upon completion of the course, free of charge to students.
Over a year after its debut in Oak Harbor, the program has already changed lives, including Raster’s, who used to be averse to change.
Raster is a Navy veteran who has served for 22 years as an aircraft mechanic. One day, in the middle of the Persian Gulf during the Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations, he realized he couldn’t take the stress of his job anymore and decided to retire. Although he left, the stress never did and, as a result, he developed an addiction to alcohol.
While looking for an “avenue to a happy place,” Raster came across an article by the Whidbey News-Times which talked about a new program that used the power of music to help veterans with disabilities. Expecting to learn a few chords to play at the occasional campfire, he decided to give it a shot and set aside his fear of failure and embarrassment.
Nine months after taking that leap of faith, he was showing off his five shiny guitars while wearing a Guitars for Vets shirt, pages of sheet music spread all over his table. His enthusiasm for this newfound hobby eventually spread to his wife, who recently added a new guitar to the family.
The once self-critical Raster feels more at peace with himself and, as a result, his home has been more peaceful. Like playing the guitar, hitting the wrong string in life isn’t the end of the world. This new perspective has given him the confidence to do things his past self wouldn’t have been comfortable doing, such as allowing himself to play and make mistakes in front of strangers and people more experienced than him.
“This has helped me realized that there’s no big deals,” he said. “Everything’s okay.”
Playing the guitar releases vibrations that he feels through his torso, putting him in a relaxed state. Raster compared the feeling to being wrapped in a swaddling cloth.
“Whatever your issue may be, this is probably an avenue to give you some relief,” he said, addressing other veterans.
Similarly, Guitars for Vets graduate Candy O’Neal described the feeling as “sedating,” which she said helped her mental health greatly, giving her confidence. It also gives her something to look forward to, like playing at open mics or practicing in the privacy of her own home so that one day she will be able to perform with her husband, local singer and songwriter Bobby O’Neal.
O’Neal, who served in the Navy for 24 years, credits the program for reducing her irritability and believes music is a great form of therapy, especially when paired with medication and talk therapy.
“It’s such a powerful instrument to be able to convey your emotions,” she said.
Furthermore, it gives her a break from her tinnitus, which she doesn’t hear while she is focused on playing.
Despite attending lessons via video calls, Joy Sgobba, a DJ from Seattle, learned to play the guitar in a way that’s easy on her carpal tunnel, which allows her to release her emotions and feel the soothing effect of the guitar’s vibrations through her body. As someone who struggles to this day with the lingering stress of her past career in the Navy and the medical field, music gives her a break from being on fight or flight mode.
She recalled her admiration for the guitar players she dated, but she was never the one to play. Now, she continues to take lessons as a post-grad with the goal of learning some Jack Johnson and Bob Marley songs.
Melissa Johnson is a guitar instructor and the Oak Harbor and Seattle Guitars for Vets chapters coordinator. Students attributed their confidence boost and improved quality of life to her gentle and patient teaching style that can adapt to different disabilities, mental and physical. One of her students, she recalled, said the program saved his life.
“The neurological pathways in the brain can be redrawn,” she said.
The program, she added, also helps instructors through their healing journey.
Cole Cartee is a new addition to Oak Harbor’s Guitar for Vets team, which includes Johnson and Army veteran Alan McClymond — who also teaches bass and banjo.
Cartee is an Army veteran with autism and ADHD who has been playing the guitar and writing his own songs for the past eight years.
“Music helps me untangle my mind,” he said.
It was thanks to music that he was able to find comfort while struggling in the Army and recalled often getting in trouble for singing too much. Through the program, he hopes to help other veterans.
Every third Wednesday of the month, starting in December, Cartee and McClymond will host jam nights that are open to students who have yet to graduate and for veterans who are not part of the program.
Veterans, Cartee said, tend to search for brotherhood and a place where they can fit in. Jam sessions offer veterans an opportunity to connect with people with similar experiences and struggles, but also an environment that encourages them to grow as musicians and people.
Neo-graduate and Navy veteran Audura Philips shared a similar opinion.
“It’s nice to know you’re not alone in the things that you struggle with,” she said.
Last Wednesday, the Whidbey Island Chapter Military Officers Association of America donated a guitar to her for completing the 10-week course.
Guitars for Vets, Johnson said, accepts monetary and guitar donations, but is also looking for people who are willing to offer their time to fix guitars or teach guitar lessons. Currently, the organization is looking for an instructor who can teach on South Whidbey.