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2013 Marine Corps Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Music Therapy, Part II

When I first met Rebecca in July 2011, I was in-patient at the Oasis Program, which specializes in treatment for Combat-related PTSD.  Part of the curriculum was weekly music therapy sessions that involved listening exercises, lyric analysis, playing hand drums, or strumming the guitar.  Rebecca would show up every week, WAY too happy for my liking. She would come strolling in with ridiculously colorful drums, guitars, and keyboards, often having everyone attempt to play a song together.  Between her enthusiastic nature, and the chaotic noise she had everyone make, her sessions intensely annoyed me.  Whenever I wanted to play my guitar, she would have a listening or lyric analysis group.  Seemingly, every time I wanted some peace and quiet she would facilitate a drumming exercise.  Normally, I would walk away as soon as she appeared, choosing to smoke a cigarette or lay on the grass instead.  Let’s just say, at the time, she was on my list of most disliked people.

My mental state at the time, which consisted of emotional numbness, guilt, anger, lack of control, and frustration, severely hindered the two things that I enjoy the most: my willingness to play music and my profound interest of social sciences. When I couldn’t feel anything, I would become enraged at the perceived missing creative abilities I previously had.  When I did feel something, it was pain, sadness, and guilt that I didn’t want to deal with or acknowledge.  I couldn’t concentrate on doing research, hated interacting with others, despised thinking, and was consumed by self-destruction. I avoided playing music for the majority of my remaining time in the Marine Corps.  I would dabble on occasion, but it was never the same as was before.  The comfort creating music had previously brought me was completely gone.

My last year in the Corps was spent in and out of treatment centers and psych wards. I attempted several programs throughout 2011 and finally completed Prolonged Exposure Therapy at Aurora, leaving asymptomatic. While on my second deployment I applied to UCLA, and was accepted to attend for liberal arts for their Spring 2012 semester, but I was too unstable to even consider going.  I ended active service a month after the semester was supposed to begin, March of 2012.  By this time, most of the symptoms returned.  I enrolled in the Art Institute for Audio Production in April, but only made it to the first day of class. I connected with Guitars for Vets in April, and became the Chapter Coordinator for the Veteran’s Administration Medical Center in VA Medical Center San Diego, in La Jolla. I greatly excelled at that position for about a month until my symptoms became unmanageable.

I felt unstable to the point that I could not see myself going on like this for much longer. As a result, the VA got me in individual therapy, but by December 2012, I had been dropped from therapy due to lack of punctuality or missing appointments. I was drinking excessively, couldn’t find appropriate ways to manage my anger, depression, and felt emptiness of a life void of meaning and purpose.  I did not believe anything would ever amount to my time and achievements in the Corps and I felt stuck in a hopeless state of existence.

On November 3, 2012, I attended the Combat Art show featuring Resounding Joy’s Semper Sound Band and Art Murals from the Oasis Program. After a long lapse of communication, I saw Rebecca again, and we spoke briefly about the current state of music therapy programming and the newly founded Semper Sound Band.  Shortly after, she joined me at one of the Guitars for Vets sessions at Veterans Village San Diego, aiding in the instruction of some of our students. She invited me to play with the Semper Sound Band in January for the “Livin’ Your Dreams” concert. Although I had initial hesitation to join, my aspiration to play music in band exceeded my reservations.

I went to the first rehearsal not knowing what to expect.  I was extremely anxious, didn’t think I had the skills to play in a band, and had no idea if I would even get along with the other members.  I was still struggling with personal issues and adding a group dynamic was difficult.  I was facing eviction, homelessness, and was extremely frustrated and unmotivated in all aspects of life.

It turned out I had a blast playing with the band.  I got along with the other Veterans, and thanks to Rebecca, gradually built up the confidence to perform and even rock some lead guitar.  After the concert in January, I continued volunteering with the band by attending rehearsals, and assisting Rebecca at Camp Pendleton every Wednesday and in the various Semper Sound Band gigs throughout San Diego County.

By March 2013, I had done a complete turn around in a positive direction.  I stopped drinking excessively, was managing symptoms fairly well, was communicating with others, and had rediscovered my passion for music.  I’ve since picked up the drums, bass, piano, and started learning music theory along with researching everything related to current physical, emotional, and mental issues within the military.   Not only did it help me, but also it enabled me to help and teach others, and that, quite simply, was awesomely cathartic.

Here We Are: Semper Sound Military Internship

So here we are.  I’m interning under the supervision of Barbara Reuer, the Executive Director of Resounding Joy.  I have a level of motivation for something other than going on deployments.  I am continuing to learn everything I can in the music therapy realm and am in the application process at Berklee College of Music (Rebecca’s alma mater), where I ultimately want to earn a degree in Music Therapy.   I want to continue working with Combat Veterans as a music therapist and eventually travel overseas to work in war-torn, third-world countries that may be too dangerous for professionals who lack military or like training to go. The people there need music therapy just as much or arguably more so than the rest of the world, and I would love to pioneer programs in those countries.

The Internship:

Resounding Joy Inc. (RJoy) is a non-profit organization that provides music therapy services to a wide range of populations in San Diego, California.  Barbara Reuer, PhD, MT-BC, Executive Director, founded RJoy in 2004, and it has since provided services to over 65,000+ children and adults.  In 2010 Resounding Joy was invited to start a program at the Navy Medical Center San Diego/Balboa (NMCSD).   Rebecca Vaudreuil, MT-BC, Semper Sound Program Director, developed, facilitated, and published curriculum for the Semper Sound Military Music Program.  The program serves both active duty and Veteran Wounded Warriors throughout San Diego to include Camp Pendleton, NMCSD, and the OASIS Program at Naval Sub Base Point Loma.

As the first Semper Sound intern, my job is essentially to help expand and facilitate these military programs and develop new programming, such as VetJam.  As a guitarist and ever growing musician, I stay active in the Semper Sound Band, a group formed from the aforementioned locations.  I aide in instrumental instruction, organization, and communication within and outside of the band while providing feedback to Resounding Joy staff, suggesting improvements, and giving insight into an environment and lifestyle which the majority of civilians are not familiar.

My internship is supported via the Travis Manion Foundation, a non-profit founded to honor the fallen by challenging the living.  They help both Veterans and families of deceased service members, along with inspiring citizens to honor those who serve. They recently began a program to fund four-month internships in fields that selected service members are truly passionate about.  I am presently one of eight Veterans in their program and grateful to be one of them.

The Future ….

Because of my knowledge of psychology and music, learning about music therapy has been a perfect fit.  I had a significant amount of experience within recreational music making and instruction via Guitars for Vets and previously teaching other Marines during my time in service, but the Semper Sound Military Music Therapy Program bridges the best of both worlds.  There is the music therapy side — clinical and monitored, and then there is the recreational side, such as the Semper Sound Band.  Being around people who share a common passion brings them together, and I’ve been able to witness amazing changes in both myself and others. It’s a bit strange shifting from strictly a volunteer participant role to the intern position, but it is definitely for the better.  I know this opportunity is a rare one, and it is going to significantly aid in my abilities to help other Veterans through music.

Although I originally disliked music therapy and my music therapist, Rebecca, she has become a great friend and mentor.  I’ve been able to learn an amazing amount from her, and she is always there to help guide me towards my goals of becoming a music therapist.  It took a year and a half, but sometimes, that’s just how combat veterans operate. We change in ways that are very hard to for those who have not been deployed to understand. Coming back Stateside to a non-veteran community among people who don’t understand deployments does not prove easy. Trust has to be earned and it can be a lengthy process, especially between veteran and civilian.  As for living with PTSD, most days are still a struggle.  I still have the guilt from not being able to do more, and the feeling that I have not done enough. I am sometimes overwhelmed by hostility and depression and can become agitated very easily, but the difference now is that I have support through the means of an awesome teams on my side, such as Resounding Joy, the Semper Sound Band, Guitars 4 Vets, and the Travis Manion Foundation. They are all supportive, dedicated, intelligent individuals, and I am honored to be working for and with them.

Music and the people involved have completely changed my life. Unlike my deployments, I know this time that I will be able to help others and make a positive difference in the world because I’m already doing it; and that is, presentably, a “good” feeling, which is rare for me. I see an amazing amount of change in Veterans on a daily basis through Resounding Joy’s programs and the field of music therapy. I am looking forward to seeing and being a part of these programs and the way in which they positively impact and empower service members and the military community.