The image is easy to conjure.
An Army soldier, weary from a day’s duty in the heat of Iraq, or perhaps Qatar, sweeps the sand from the steps of his makeshift dwelling as the sun sets over a scorching landscape.
The sound of Islam’s call to evening prayer rises, even as the soldier sits on his sandless stoop and reaches for that most American icon, the guitar.
“Whether I was in Germany or Iraq or Qatar, when I got my hands on a guitar, that was my stress relief at the end of the day,” said Jim Hoy, now retired from the Army and living in Papillion.
“Even if it was one o’clock in the morning, I’d go out on the patio, or the steps of my hooch, and play. It was very soothing, and from that experience I can see how readily it can apply to others.”
Hoy gathered with four other military veterans Thursday to discuss his and their work with a national organization called Guitars for Veterans, which provides free guitar lessons to fellow vets.
They sipped hot brews at Scooter’s Coffee on Capehart Road and spoke of their conviction that immersion in music can soothe troubled souls, open healthier pathways in the brain and perhaps reduce a suicide rate among military veterans that is widely acknowledged to have reached 22 a day.
Hoy was joined by Steve Reed, David Mike and Peggy Ullom, all Bellevue residents, and Angela Tunali, who lives in Papillion and is a graduate of the Guitars for Veterans program.
Ullom, who served 10 years in the Air Force before retiring to Bellevue, is the reason they are all there.
About eighteen months ago, she was scouring the internet for guitar lessons when up popped Guitars for Veterans. Founded in 2007 by a Milwaukee, guitar instructor who eased a Vietnam-era marine’s post-traumatic stress disorder by teaching him how to play the guitar, the 501(c)3 non-profit has since established 60 chapters in 30 states.
But there was nothing in Nebraska.
There was, however, a clickable button available to anyone willing to start a chapter.
Ullom said she felt some trepidation born of doubt that she could build and manage such a thing as a statewide chapter.
But that 22-suicides-a-day statistic nagged.
“My heart to serve veterans that are suffering just overpowered the fear that I might fail, or mess up a program like this,” she said.
So she clicked the button and was introduced to a program that provided her with a mentor and ongoing advice.
Newly appointed the volunteer head of the fledgling Nebraska chapter of Guitars for Veterans, Ullom reached out to Mike, a fellow congregant and guitarist at Bellevue’s Lifespring Church, who in turn knew other guitarists. Before long, she had assembled the four-member teaching staff gathered around the Scooter’s table.
Mike said the program works.
“One student I had showed no real visible change, but his wife told me privately I would not believe the difference in his personality,” he said. “He calmly deals with situations better, he’s more compassionate, hasn’t touched alcohol in two weeks, and is enjoying his family more.
“And I thought ‘Oh, my goodness, it’s working.’”
Seven veterans have learned to play the guitar over the past 18 months, five of whom have formally graduated from the 10-week program, or are about to.
The number of students is limited by the number of practice guitars the program can provide for home use. There has been no difficulty attracting students, who must be referred to the program by the Omaha division of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs near 42nd and Center streets in Omaha where the lessons are given. More than 30 sit on a waiting list Ullom refers to as “the queue.”
Brett Stidfole, a recreational therapist with the Omaha VA who coordinates with Ullom, said veterans he has assigned to the program report good results.
“I hear from my vets that it’s a stress reliever, that it keeps them motivated and keeps their minds and memory off bad stuff,” he said. “That it gives them something to look forward to, and something to do. And then there’s the support system during and after, because after they complete the program they continue to meet up and play together.”
Though the VA has a plentiful supply of students, the program lacks guitars.
Ullom said guitars can be donated directly or paid for by cash donation. She said about $200 will cover the cost of a brand-new guitar, which is given to students at graduation, along with accessories.
It was a big moment for Ullom’s growing chapter when the Bellevue Walmart recently donated $600 to the program.
“It was the first big donation for our chapter, and I hope its shows the community is beginning to learn about us,” she said.
Tunali, a native of Winston-Salem, N.C. and a 20-year Army veteran who has lived in Nebraska for 10 years, is a graduate.
“It’s made a big difference,” she said. “It’s kind of like a relief builder for me. Sometimes you have those dark moments, but then I’m able to just play my guitar and get lost in the music and let it take me out of that. It’s been very therapeutic.”
Reed, a veteran of both the Air Force and the Navy, said he has seen students arrived “all tied up in knots,” only to re-learn the art of relaxing.
“My motivation, as a veteran myself, is veterans helping veterans,” he said. “That’s what we do.”
It is also the reason Ullom clicked that button 18 months ago.
“We know our veterans are falling into dark times and getting lost in their own minds,” she said. “Through this program we want them to know there are viable options to cope outside of drugs or alcohol or any other harmful behaviors they might be using to deal with whatever they’re dealing with.
“This is a positive outlet, a way to build self esteem and finding a way to plug into your community and even to plug into your family.”
Ullom can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.