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Levy’s Goes All-In For Vets

...since high school in the mid-’80s, Patrick truly found his calling in 2007, when he co-founded the non-profit Guitars For Vets. Since then, the organization has grown from a few lessons in VA hospitals to a nationwide guitar program for veterans suffering from physical injuries and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As Patrick puts it, “Veterans begin to regain their joy, and as a side effect, they learn how to play the guitar.” “G4V” now comprises more than 60 chapters and 200 volunteer instructors, drawing support from a prestigious list of m.i. manufacturers and retailers—though not without some relentless legwork by Patrick and his team. Since partnering with the nonprofit NAMM Foundation in 2012, he and G4V Executive Director Eric Weinstein have attended every summer and winter NAMM show, working the floor to drum up donations and connect with new partners. In 2013, one of them was Dennis Levy. As founder and president of guitar strap leader Levy’s Leathers, Dennis took an immediate interest in Guitars For Vets, eventually collaborating with the program on an official G4Vstrap. For sales of this special edition strap, Dennis initially agreed to donate 10% of all profits to the Guitars For Vets program. A week later, he called Patrick to say he’d changed his mind: Levy’s would insist on giving all of the profits to Guitars For Vets.

“I woke up in the middle of the night and asked myself, ‘What the heck am I doing?’” says Dennis. “Can you imagine where we would be now if the armed forces personnel only gave 10%? I was embarrassed by our original deal, and my only excuse is that I get caught up in the day-to-day of business and lose my perspective sometimes. How blessed I am to have people like the ones at Guitars For Vets to come into my life and ground me.

“The statistics on vets are staggering,” he adds, “and the impact their journey has had on their lives and those who love them is an incredible weight to carry. I see G4V making that load lighter. I was captivated by Patrick and Eric’s heartfelt dedication to their mission.”

For Patrick, you might say the mission dates back almost as far as he does. Growing up in Wisconsin, he was undecided between being a musician and going into medicine, saying later, “Guitars For Vets brought together those two ideas of what I wanted to do with my life: the music and the healing.” Initially, though, he chose music: teaching guitar lessons, playing gigs, composing commercial jingles, and writing scores for films including Coven, the subject of the 1999 cult classic documentary American Movie. Intermittently, he estimates he held around 30 other jobs including construction worker and limo driver. He thought he was about to leave teaching to focus on his performing career when he happened to get Vietnam War veteran Dan Van Buskirk as a student. Affected by PTSD leading to memory and coordination challenges, the U.S. Marine worried he wouldn’t be able to keep a rhythm. “I said, ‘Dan, your heart is beating—that means you already have rhythm,’” Patrick recalls. “So we began to move forward. He shared his experiences, and I told him I like to view the guitar as a catalyst for positive human interaction. Dan felt this was relieving some of his depression and anxiety, and he was getting a lot of joy out of that.”

It was Dan who suggested the two of them play for vets at the nearby Zablocki VA Medical Center, an eminent veterans’ hospital commissioned by Abraham Lincoln in 1865. On the way over, they happened to stop at Milwaukee’s Cream City Music, where founder Joe Gallenberger heard about their plan and offered two guitars for them to give away to the patients—unknowingly becoming Guitars For Vets’ first donor. At the hospital they found a pair of veterans to give the guitars to, but immediately felt the gift would be incomplete unless they also gave them lessons. They spent the rest of their visit teaching. “Afterward we got back to my attic studio and I said, ‘I think we’ve got something really special here,’” says Patrick. Not long afterward, Guitars For Vets was set up as a nonprofit with Patrick and Dan as cofounders.

Nine years in, Guitars For Vets is based out of the Kemper Center in Kenosha, Wisconsin, once a pioneering girls’ school on the shores of Lake Michigan. To date, it’s distributed more than 2,000 guitars and taught a reported 20,000 free lessons to military veterans in VA hospitals and Community-Based Outreach Centers, or CBOCs. Through the G4V program, each vet gets ten weekly one-on-one lessons on a practice guitar, usually a donated instrument sourced through community drives for playable used guitars. At the end of the ten lessons, vets are recognized with a certificate and “graduation pack” including a new guitar, method book, instructional DVD, and accessories bundle—and remain in the program with weekly group lessons for as long as they want to stay involved. “Graduation for us isn’t reaching a certain academic level on guitar,” says Patrick. “It’s showing up, giving effort, just engaging in this process.”

Along with numerous veterans suffering from PTSD, G4V has brought guitar lessons to vets with paralysis, blindness, and stroke symptoms caused by Agent Orange exposure, not to mention illnesses such as MRSA brought on by long hospital stays. For those with physical limitations, instructors are taught to improvise: “If the vet can play a chord with one hand but the other hand doesn’t work, we’ll strum the chord for them,” says Patrick, “and they light up like a holiday.” For all situations, they’re taught to work by the acronym PAGE: Patience, Acceptance, Gratitude, Empathy. Along the way, G4V instructors have witnessed the haunting side of military service and, at times, the healing effects of music. There was an older vet with terminal cancer who just wanted to learn a few children’s songs to play for his granddaughter before he died. There was an ex-sniper who was never without his rifle while in the service, a veteran of many brutal battles who’d slept every night with his weapon by his side and could put it together in the dark. “When you leave, you don’t get to bring your rifle home with you,” says Patrick. “And suddenly you feel very vulnerable. This vet told me: ‘When I hold this guitar, I feel relaxed again because I feel safe.’

“It’s an honor to have these folks share their trials and tribulations of war with a civilian,” he adds, “but it’s also very heavy. War is hell—of the lowest level—and we’re not trained therapists. We’re volunteers who are showing up and being present for somebody who’s in a lot of pain and needs something to hold onto. That guitar might be all they’ve got to get them to the next day. There are people we lose: an estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day. But one of the compelling reasons  to do this is that people tell us, ‘This guitar saved my life.’”

Total cost of the program: just $200 per veteran, according to G4V. The organization employs all of four paid staff, while the balance of its work is carried out by ranks of volunteers across the country. As for the gear they give away, many of the guitars in the graduation packs are Yamaha FG700S’s offered at a special discount by the manufacturer—and the list goes on from there. Taylor, Gibson, CMG, Cordoba, and Yamaha have donated guitars, while famed guitar maker Dean Zelinsky has made G4V the beneficiary of a “buy one, give one” pledge: for every sale of Zelinsky’s special-edition Tagliare guitar, one of the same model is given to the program. On the accessories side, Hal Leonard donates method books, Kyser provides capos, D’Addario contributes strings, Westheimer Corp. offers guitar stands, and Wisconsin-based Impact Picks throws in guitar picks. TKL provides graduates with a special gig bag. Reverb.com has donated tuners, collaborated on a T-shirt, and last year ran a Memorial Day promotion for the program’s benefit. Wisconsin retailer Kraft Music contributes heavily on logistics, including storage and shipping, and has donated hundreds of guitars to the cause. Other contributors include Get’m Get’m Wear, WD Music Products, and U.S. Music Corp. The program also receives support from the D’Addario Foundation, the Les Paul Foundation, and the Guitar & Accessories Marketing Association (GAMA).

The most recent addition to the package is Levys’ MPG4V strap. Designed between G4V and Levys’ art department, the special strap was done up with leather ends and artwork featuring the Guitars For Vets logo along with its motto: “The healing power of music in the hands of heroes.” “It’s such a powerful message, and it flows beautifully down the front of the strap,” says Dennis. To date, Levy’s has donated 600 straps and committed to carry on the project for the foreseeable future. As Patrick notes, it was an unusual step for the manufacturer, which has rarely if ever cobranded a product with an outside organization. “The family is very protective of their brand,” he says. Besides being included in the graduation packs, the strap has now been on the market for a month and has already netted an estimated $3,000 for Guitars For Vets. “The strap looks so cool that, with Levy’s being the leader in straps, I don’t see why we couldn’t add another zero to that number,” says Patrick.

For the benefit of other companies that want to help: there’s more than one way to do it, says Patrick. Along with gear and monetary donations, supporters can sponsor a local chapter—or “adopt” a chapter, ensuring that it gets at least ten guitar bundles per year. June is PTSD awareness month, he adds, a prime opportunity for poster and bumper sticker campaigns, or even live events with artists willing to get involved. Already supported by such artists as Tommy Emmanuel, Earl Slick, Skunk Baxter, Jim McCarty, and Ron Keel, the organization remains on the lookout for new ambassadors. With further support and broader messaging, Patrick hopes one day to expand Guitars For Vets beyond U.S. borders into chapters around the world. “This is a global initiative,” he says. “It’s only a matter of money and time. Music is the universal language, and I think we’ll find that it will help heal veterans everywhere.”

“To think about the veterans we lose is gut-wrenching,” adds Dennis, “not just for the vets themselves but for the people who love them: mothers, fathers, spouses, brothers, daughters. They all leave someone behind who mourns their loss and feels the guilt of not being able to help them. If we’re able to help even one, it is an effort well spent.”

www.levysleathers.com
www.guitars4vets.org

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