Why I work with Guitars for Vets

  I have been thinking about this question all morning as a I lay  here in the half-awake-traveling-musician's-state-of-mind on a couch in  Los Angeles. I have a show tonight in Hollywood at the American Legion  Post 43. The show was booked and created by my dear friend and Iraq  veteran Dan Roberts. Dan and I have gotten to be good friends ever since  we helped to kick-start the Green Bay, WI Chapter of Guitars for Vets.  Recently, he moved to LA and started the G4V Chapter in LA. Heʼs about  to graduate his second class of Guitars for Vets students. Dan is in his  early 30ʻs and was injured himself in Iraq after he stepped on a land  mine. He went through the G4V program in Zablocki VA in Milwaukee. I am  so proud of this organization and being a spokesperson for G4V fulfills  part of my dream for my own career. I truly am a believer in the healing  power of music. I have been a believer in this long before I ever got  involved with Guitars for Vets.  

   The organizationʼs motto  is, “Putting the healing power of music into the hands of our nationʼs  heroes.” It sounds poetic, but in reality, it is a very simple  explanation of what we do. We teach guitar lessons to injured veterans.  We pair volunteer teachers with traumatized veterans in a safe  environment and then after 6 weeks we give them a donated guitar. That  guitar is their tool for their own personal healing journey. I have had  about 5 young vets tell me that this program has saved their life. They  have told me that they know for sure, that the connections and  experiences they had working with G4V people stopped them from  committing suicide. Before working with guitars for vets, I have only  had one person tell me that. She told me she sat up all night and  reminded herself that there are good people in this world and that  listening to my music kept her alive one night. I have no idea how these  things happen. I am humbled and honored by this. But I also believe  that I am only a conduit for the music, and that part of my reason for  being here on earth, is to bring that healing energy through from a  higher source. That doesnʼt make me holy, or better than anyone else, or  even special, because every person has the capability to do this. I  believe when you engage with the creative force in whatever capacity  works for you and you just forget about your ego-self, and let the  creativity work through you, that you canʼt help but to heal your self  and other people will be affected by your openness and work.
    I  grew up in the generation that had a grandparents in world war II and  parents in Vietnam. Now my own generation is affected by this decade  long war in Iraq and Afghanistan. People ask me why did you get involved  in this program? I think we, all Americans, vets or non-vets, are  involved in this legacy of wars. I guess it always haunted me to see the  fall-out effects of Vietnam on my generationʼs parents and in turn, on  us, as their kids. Not everybody who went through that war or was  drafted showed their PTSD through alchoholism, addictions or what seemed  to be bizarre behavior. Alot of people just seemed totally normal on  the surface and would never talk about it, but held alot of nightmares  inside. It made them hardened and not totally present as fathers.
     When we went to Washington DC, I was a kid on a family vacation. I  remember I was totally caught off guard by the experience of watching my  father start to weep at The Wall as he searched for the names of his  friends who had died in Vietnam. That experience really blew me away as a  kid because my father had never really cried in front of me, and  especially not in public. I wrote a song about that too called, “You can  Love your Country.” Itʼs on the Neil Young song list.

     I  protested the war when it started because it seemed so pre-emptive, and  not really like the correct solution to 911. It just didn't make sense  to me. After a few protests during the Bush administration, I realized  that we werenʼt going to stop the war, because they had already started  it again. It made me cry the night George Bush announced our countryʼs  plans because I felt like we would never get out of it, and now it has  been over ten years and we are still in it. 

   Back then, I  thought,...."protesting the war isnʼt helping. Maybe I can at least help  people who have been at the front lines with what I do well. I can play  and teach music." Guitars for Vets helped me to find a mode of  expression for their personal story. The vets I know are some of the  most honest and idealistic people in my life. They are people who have  stories to tell that people need to hear. I am interested in working  with people who have conviction and clearly stand up for what they  believe in. I respect that. 

   After I came home to visit  from Nashville, I ran into Dan and Pat (co-founders of G4V) at a G4V  fund raiser at Linnemanʼs Pub in Milwaukee. I was so moved by their  speech that I almost wanted to cry. Then it dawned on me they had  already been in  correspondence with me back in Nashville about playing  fundraising shows. I introduced myself that night in person and ever  since then I have been working with Guitars for Vets.

     I  started out as a beginner teacher and then I moved onto teaching and  assisting with group lessons every week at the DOM123 in the VA  hospital.    One day at class, one of the participants asked me to play  some of my own songs. He kept saying, “I could never write a song.  Thatʼs great.I wish I could do that.” And I kept laughing and saying,  “Yes you can. Anytime you want to just ask me and weʼll write one  together.” A few weeks later, Al Harrison and I started writing “Dusty  Old Road.” He had a chord progression idea and I made up a little  melody. I said, while strumming the guitars with him at the DOM's  activity room round table, “you know what I see?...I see a man walking  down a dusty old road around sunset all by himself out in the country  just thinking about his life....on a dirt road in the fall...” Alʼs eyes  lit up, and he said, ”Thatʼs what I see...how did you do that?”  “I  donʼt know," I said, "itʼs just that sometimes the music tells you what  the story is.” So we collected ideas and stories from his and his wife's  experiences serving in the military and I wrote them all down. Then we  put the song together over the next few weeks in person and over email.

     I am really proud of this song because it has a really powerful spirit.

      The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writers were working on a story about  G4V and wanted copies of it before it was even completely finished. When  I went back to Tennessee, I recorded the song one night in my friend  Dave McCormickʼs home studio so I could give it to Al and the reporters.  Al and I played our song at the Rock the Rumble event in Harley  Davidson Museum and at the Vietnam Veteran tribute at LZ Lambeau Field  last year. Weʼve been mentioned in Vintage Guitar Magazine, interviewed  by NBC nightly news reporters, and local TV news as well. I have  traveled all over and played this song, even on big radio stations that  donʼt allow non pre-programmed songs to be played on the air. A few  weeks ago in Minneapolis at a G4V event, I played our song with the  Blood on the Tracks Band. (The guys who played on Bob Dylanʼs Blood on  the Tracks record. My fave Dylan record!) Al has told me in front of  reporters, that writing this song really helped him on a personal level.  He is a 21 year Merchant Marine Vet who was injured (partially  paralyzed in a wheel chair after trying to save a fellow sailorʼs life)  After the trauma he experienced during his service and then ending up  disabled he told me his PTSD was taking a toll on his family life and he  fell into a depression. He told me this program has really helped his  communication with friends and family. His wife told me the same thing  as well...so now we know itʼs true...ha. Anyways, I am totally honored  to have written "Dusty Old Road" with him and I have it set as one of my  goals to write more songs with the vets in our program til I have a  collection together of real folk music.

    I never thought  about what would happen with the song when were writing the song in the  VA together. Songs are supposed to tell stories and tell the truth.  Songs are supposed to be representative of the collective memory of  people or a personʼs human experience. I am honored to write with the  veterans in our program. It is an extremely personal task to open up  about your deepest feelings and share that with your co-writer. Then  allowing it to be shared with the world is another level of letting go  and trust. I am interested in writing songs that move people on a deeper  level. Getting an opportunity to write with the veterans in Guitars for  Vets is a huge gift to me. I love to see people proud of what they  helped to create. If I can lend the voice to that, then I am using my  gifts for a worthy purpose.
Meaghan Owens