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November 8, 2022

Guitars for Vets program offers music lessons to veterans in need of healing

Publisher’s note: This story is part of our Salute to Service coverage, November 1-11. Know the calendar of events.

Army veteran Stephen Bradford once had a skewed view of the world. He saw some “ungodly things in combat,” battled long-term addiction issues, had a failed marriage, and attempted suicide three times.

“When I came back to the world after the fight, I thought the world was in a bad shape,” Bradford said. “But it was actually me.”

That realization is what put him on the path to healing and accepting the past. And though his sobriety restored his life, it was a music program for veterans that soothed his soul.

Bradford is the lead instructor for the Phoenix-Tempe chapter of Guitars for Vets, a nonprofit organization that was founded in 2007 and has more than 100 chapters in more than 40 states. The show is dedicated to the healing power of music for veterans dealing with combat-related mental and emotional stress issues.

Guitars for Vets offers free guitar lessons, an acoustic guitar, necessary accessories, and a method book, in a structured, volunteer-led program. To date, the national organization has given more than 43,000 lessons and distributed more than 4,300 guitars to veterans.

return the favour

Before joining the Army, Bradford was a fisherman and musician who played in a couple of West Valley-based heavy metal bands. The bands played talent shows and desert keg parties. It was mostly for laughs, good times and free beer. So Bradford and a bandmate decided to join the army.

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His friend only lasted a few months in the army. Bradford decided to stick it out and was trained as a Patriot missile operator during Operation Desert Storm. He said the match had a profound impact on him.

“I used to love things, but after I came back from combat, I had no pleasure in anything,” Bradford said. “I forgot how to play the guitar and Guitars for Vets taught me how. They literally saved my life.”

Now Bradford is returning the favor. He has directed the Phoenix-Tempe program, which is located on the third floor of the Arizona State University Community Services Building, for about two years.

He teaches, advises and listens.

“There is active healing here on the third floor,” Bradford said. “This is distraction therapy. All that stress, all those nightmares, everything that PTSD leaves behind once you walk into this room. Build trust. Build relationships. It’s a good program.”

Guitar Video for Vets at ASU: Arizona State University

Video by Ken Fagan/ASU News

Camaraderie through self-expression

Bradford begins with a song. He finds out from each veteran what his favorite song is. That person then learns that song, along with a handful of others, like Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” The Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See,” and Peter, Paul’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” and Mary.

At graduation, Bradford arranges for everyone to perform live at a local Veterans of Foreign Wars concert or other venue.

Most of the participants have some kind of musical training, but there are some, like Sonia Carrasco and Steven Chacon, who have never played an instrument before. Carrasco, an Army veteran who served from 2011 to 2014, thought learning to play the guitar would be a good way to spice up her social life.

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“It’s good for just about any situation, like camping or a reunion,” said Carrasco, who works at ASU’s Pat Tillman Veterans Center as an advocate for student success. “It could also be useful for a romantic evening or to sing a song to my mom on Mother’s Day. I think it’s a unique ability to have.”

Chacon, who is currently a cybersecurity specialist in the Air Force and a sustainability major at ASU, said for him it was about seizing a good opportunity and having camaraderie with other veterans.

“We all have different backgrounds and different ages,” said Chacón, who practices about an hour a day. “It’s a fun and welcoming environment and there’s a great support system. It’s not an experience you can have on campus.”

Chacón usually sits next to Marko Higuera, a Marine. Higuera said that he likes the show because it is a form of self-expression.

“I’m 26, so I feel like I’m just learning how to deal with my personal issues or how to express myself successfully,” said Higuera, a supply chain management student at the WP Carey School of Business. “For the first time in my life, I can sit down and focus on one thing for an extended period of time. When you’re in the military, you focus on the task at hand, which isn’t really about you.”

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