At one point, Patrick Nettesheim wanted to be a doctor. Although his career path took him in a different direction, he’s found a way to help thousands of wounded veterans in their healing process.
Nettesheim is a guitar instructor in Milwaukee, and a series of guitar lessons in 2007 with a Vietnam War Marine veteran led to the formation of Guitars for Vets, a non-profit organization that offers free guitar lessons to wounded veterans.
“We’re not providing professional services,” Nettesheim said. “We’re just sitting, teaching and sharing. It’s a human connection.”
For veterans such as Dan Van Buskirk, the connection has meant so much more than the technical knowledge imparted. Van Buskirk wanted to learn to play a guitar, but he was concerned that the effects of post-traumatic stress would limit his ability to learn. But the pair developed a special bond through a process Nettesheim describes as PAGE – Patience, Acceptance, Gratitude and Empathy.
“The guitar is a catalyst for positive interaction,” Nettesheim says. “It is meditation in motion.”
As the lessons continued, Van Buskirk suggested that the pair visit the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Milwaukee. When Nettesheim told a peer what they were doing, friend and local music-store owner Joe Gallenberger of Cream City Music gave Nettesheim two guitars to give away in honor of his father, who fought in the Korean War and suffered from PTSD.
“We were going to the VA with the intention of playing, but the first thing we do is give the guitars away,” Nettesheim said. “The two gentlemen we gave the guitars to were thrilled. They lit up like a Christmas tree. And the nursing staff took note of that, because it’s really hard to have an ongoing, positive attitude when you’re in that situation.”
The visit went so well that the nurses invited the pair back another time. It also proved the inspiration for the pair to co-found Guitar for Vets.
“Dan and I went back to the studio and thought, this is kind of cool. Maybe we should do a nonprofit,” Nettesheim said.
Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin helped the pair gain 501(c)3 status and a few months later Guitars for Vets was a reality.
The organization started by opening three chapters in Wisconsin, then expanded to Houston and Miami as the group went nationwide. Today, Guitars for Vets has more than 130 chapters in 40 states as well as Puerto Rico, the United Kingdom, and Australia and also gives lessons remotely.
Since starting in 2007, Guitars for Vets has graduated more than 6,000 students and given more than 60,000 lessons.
Participating veterans are referred to the program by a healthcare provider or vet center, such as a VA medical center, VFW, American Legion or universities and colleges. The veterans are paired up with chapter coordinators who organize the schedules between instructors and students.
Guitars for Vets provides 10 free lessons along with a loner guitar and accessories. Lessons are of the individual and group variety, giving the veterans a forum to talk and play music with their peers. Upon graduation, veterans receive their own guitar plus additional accessories such as picks, a gig bag, strap, tuner, stand, book and a certificate of completion.
A donation of $200 covers the costs of one veteran to go through the program, Nettesheim said. But non-profit organizations are nothing without a robust core of volunteers. Guitars for Vets has more than 800 volunteers. Those interested in learning more about the program to contribute or volunteer should visit the website.
“I can’t tell you how grateful I am for (the volunteers),” Nettesheim said. “It was really difficult in the beginning, a mountain that Dan and I had to climb, because we don’t think our wives even thought we were starting this with any support.”