Veterans find positivity, creativity in local guitar lessons | Living

Charles Ballin is singing Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” while Bob Waters plays along.

Waters, his guitar instructor, encourages as Ballin hits a chord too late but gets back in time.

“There you go,” Waters exclaims.

Waters and Ballin meet every week at the veterans center in Ventnor as part of a 10-week program called Guitars for Vets.

Guitars for Vets was founded in 2007 when Milwaukee guitar instructor Patrick Nettesheim was introduced to Vietnam veteran Dan Van Buskirk. Van Buskirk wanted to learn guitar but was afraid his PTSD would make it difficult, but after a few months the results were there.

The point of the program is to create self-expression and positive human interaction for veterans, according to the organization’s site.

Each veteran receives 10 weeks of lessons and, at the end of the final lesson, is given their own acoustic guitar. Now, the nonprofit organization has fulfilled over 25,000 lessons and has handed over 2,500 guitars.

Andy Smail, of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said the program helps with frustration, depression and emotional tolerance.

“Just with music in general, learning how to produce something and create something seems to have a positive effect on mood,” Smail said. “It helps with concentration and learning how to learn different chords and, for some reason, helps them neurologically with hand eye coordination.”

The program has over 60 chapters in more than 30 states, including the Ventnor location in South Jersey.

On a Thursday evening, Waters is strumming along with Ballin. Ballin is close to finishing his 10-week set of lessons, so he has a lot he’s trying to digest before his sessions end.

The best part, Ballin said, is being able to learn songs he’s always loved and then being able to play songs for his friends.

“It makes you feel good when you go home and someone is sitting around and you start playing — makes you feel good,” said Ballin, 78, of Folsom.

It also helps for coping with the past.

Ballin served in the military from 1958 to 1979. He toured the United States and served in Vietnam, where he earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

Ballin said the time he spends with Waters every week helps clear his mind.

“It relieves the mind a little bit, especially when going though trauma, and it settles you down,” Ballin said.

Ballin recommends lessons to other veterans and to people in general.

“It’s relaxing, and it makes you feel good. It’s beautiful,” Ballin said.

Waters keeps an eye on Ballin’s hands as he strums along. Waters, a former Navy man, created the Ventnor location two years ago when he wanted to give back to veterans. He filed paperwork to open the Ventnor location.

Waters has only had around five students finish the 10-week program, but the benefits he’s found with those who have finished the program are profound.

“You come here and make it to the end and it’s something to be proud of,” said Waters, 64, of Egg Harbor City. “It puts you somewhere else for a while. The more they get involved, the more I get out of it. It pumps you up.”

For more information about Guitars for Vets, go to

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