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Vets heal trauma through music

Locations: News Published

The late songwriter and guitar virtuoso Michael Hedges once said, “I play guitar because it helps me dream out loud.”

Challenge America, a national nonprofit based in Basalt, is hoping to give veterans the chance to dream out loud by participating in Challenge America’s Guitars for Vets donation program and music therapy retreats. 

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Challenge America’s website states their mission is “to connect service members, veterans and their families to resources and solutions that build community and give purpose to their lives.”

Director Dallas Blaney said their current project, a partnership between Challenge America and Basalt Regional Library, will donate 40 artist-decorated guitars to veterans.

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In the past, Blaney employed the HeartStrings Foundation to provide Challenge America with guitars decorated by artists to donate to veterans. However, this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, HeartStrings was able to provide the guitars but without the artistic flair. 

New partnerships came about as a result of the Basalt and Carbondale chambers of commerce hosting a joint November After Hours event on Nov. 17, promoting nonprofit chamber members. 

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Kris Mattera, executive director of the Basalt Chamber of Commerce, said they had an idea to host the event for nonprofit organizations, “recognizing that it’s been a challenging year for our businesses, but definitely for our nonprofits.”

Aspen Strong, a local mental health advocacy nonprofit, is another organization involved in the project. Mattera said, “We’ve really tried to have open conversations, trying to eliminate the stigma when it comes to mental health and recognizing how healing things like music therapy and the arts can be. You know, I think this is a great collaboration between all these different organizations.”

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Cathy Click, coordinator for community engagement for Basalt Regional Library said, “The crowning meaning and achievement of this particular After Hours are the guitars.”

She said she’s thrilled the library has the space. “Our office is open to the public and big so it makes it a perfect venue for this kind of collaboration, and we’re really happy to be able to do it.”

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CRPS

In September, Shannon von Driska participated in Challenge America’s Mount Elbert Challenge event, where a team of veterans journeyed to reach the summit of Colorado’s tallest mountain.

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Now an executive assistant to Blaney, she spoke candidly about a rare neurological condition that affects her called Complex Regional Pain Syndrome (CRPS). CRPS is also known as “suicide disease,” said von Driska.

“We’ve had so many veterans in our lives commit suicide. And we don’t want to have any other veterans out there thinking that they’re alone, or that no one understands, or any of those feelings that you have at ‘the bottom.’ So our mission became overcoming hopelessness through purpose and community and showing that, together, you can overcome anything,” von Driska explained. 

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In August, von Driska also participated in Challenge America’s first all-female music therapy program, with other veterans.

They met virtually, via Zoom, two nights a week for three weeks. While von Driska had some previous musical experience, including playing the guitar, she revealed, “I did not know the techniques for music therapy at all.” 

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While she said she was “expecting a really basic guitar lesson,” she found the program to be much more than that. “It was about using this musical instrument to basically help rewire your brain and connect different pathways and calm anxiety and other symptoms of PTSD.”

Techniques, like not using guitar picks, help to focus on feeling the vibrations of the guitar strings. “It’s really about focusing in on just the experience and something other than your brain and all the craziness going on up there,” von Driska explained.

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In 2007, while training to be an Army medic, von Driska fell and crushed her leg. The injury wasn’t treated properly for the next couple of years, which “resulted in a bunch more issues,” she shared. Shortly thereafter, her then-husband, also serving in the Army, received orders to deploy to Iraq, leaving her alone to cope with the physical, emotional and psychological aftermath.

The music therapy retreat also helped her deal with the psychological aftermath of a military sexual assault, which von Driska has spoken about publicly. She recalls, “I was still unpacking all these things.” 

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She met Blamey by using the hashtag “#CRPS” on Instagram. “I was eligible to have an amputation and was kind of debating it and trying to learn about it. And he says he’s an amputee.”

Now age 34, von Driska said, “I literally got this [CPRS] on Jan. 24, 2019. I never thought that I would just get sick one day and never get better. I’ve had so many surgeries and no issues. I should add that not everybody who gets nerve damage during surgery will develop CRPS — it’s rare, really rare.”

Currently living in Madison, Wisconsin, with her two children, von Driska works remotely for Challenge America. She hopes to move to the Roaring Fork Valley soon, but added, “as you know, it’s a little pricey.”

The power of music

Susan Bock, director of music therapy at Challenge America, is a board-certified music therapist who began working for Challenge America in 2019 by leading two music therapy retreats. One retreat was held at the Bison Peak Lodge at Puma Hills, located in Lake George, Colorado, and the other was at the farm of Amy Grant and Vince Gill in Franklin, Tennessee. The married couple, both successful country musicians in their own right, are honorary co-founders of Challenge America.

Bock said, “It helps [the veterans] tell their story. It also just helps them process their story. We tell them that they can write [a song] about whatever they want to. It does not have to be about their military service, but just by telling their story through the song, which is considered nonverbal communication. It sometimes can convey emotions as well as a story easier than the veteran sitting down and talking to somebody.”

Bock said veterans choose their guitars. She noted, “We set them all out and then we let them choose the guitar. I have them do a lot of bonding with their guitar. Another unique aspect of this is that holding a guitar can simulate holding a service weapon.”

“I also encourage the veterans to leave their guitars out as a reminder to play them all the time and we send them a guitar stand. It’s a reminder of the retreat. And what we have done in the retreat,” Bock shared.

Ten veterans participate in the virtual music therapy retreats. A songwriter and a veteran co-write a song, which is performed by the songwriter at the end of the retreat.

Bock said the veterans “come away with a real essence of self that they didn’t quite have when they first came. In one instance, a veteran told me that after this retreat she had no more suicidal ideation, and beforehand she did.”

Delving into veterans reacclimating to civilian life, Bock shared, “It’s a culture that we, as non-veterans, don’t often understand — how hard it is to come back into civilian life after being in the service, or coming back with PTSD from the service and then trying to integrate back in. So, creating art and creating beauty is a wonderful thing for the veterans to experience.”

After Hours

The public is welcome to attend the Nov. 17 event, from 5 to 7 p.m. as a part of the joint After Hours event at the Basalt Regional Library. Pre-registration is at the Basalt Chamber of Commerce website: https://www.basaltchamber.org/

Challenge America also partnered in October with The Art Base in Basalt, to host two guitar decorating workshops, and the Aspen Art Museum, to offer free guitar decoration kits.

For more information about Challenge America, visit: https://www.challengeamerica.com/

Challenge America also partnered in October with The Art Base in Basalt, to host two guitar decorating workshops, and the Aspen Art Museum, to offer free guitar decoration kits.

Tags: #Challenge America #guitar #Guitars for Vets #music therapy #Veterans
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