Helping Transitioning Veterans Through Music

I was recently asked to write a blog post about the benefits of music therapy for veterans, particularly those veterans returning from the war in Iraq. I haven’t had the honor of working with veterans in Maine yet, but it is a population with which I’d like to become more involved. Interestingly, veterans had a lot to do with the history of music therapy as a profession. After both World War I and World War II, community musicians played at veterans’ hospitals for vets suffering from physical and emotional trauma. According to the AMTA, “The patients’ notable physical and emotional responses to music led the doctors and nurses to request the hiring of musicians in the hospital. It was soon evident that musicians needed some prior training before entering the facility and so the demand grew for a college curriculum.” If I remember correctly from my studies, the first music therapy training program began at Western Michigan in 1944. I always think of this when I meet someone and tell them what they do and they say, “Oh, that’s a really new field, isn’t it?” … it isn’t! But it has grown a lot as a professional field, and particularly in health care settings I think we’ve taken great strides to be doing ethical and worthwhile work. Part of this includes that training piece. Many hospitals, including VA hospitals, and other centers, have musicians or volunteers coming in to play music for residents and patients. I think this is a wonderful, well-meaning service, but just as doctors knew after World War II, more specific training is needed. Even if musicians are simply entertaining a group of patients, their music may have a powerful impact on listeners who have experienced any kind of trauma. It is important for anyone doing this work to have training in the needs of returning veterans, and training in how to handle whatever reactions may come up. Musicians have to know what kind of music to be playing, and how to adapt that music to the setting and their listeners’ needs.

In this post, I’d like to discuss some of the needs of returning service members, and discuss how participating in music therapy programs can help these veterans. I welcome any and all feedback and suggestions, because not being a veteran myself means that I don’t know everything. Maybe there are other ways, too, that music has helped in times of transition? Email me at our contact page with your stories. {C}{C}

Soliders coming back from service these days have a variety of needs. Some people come home and adjust quickly, others have short-term adjustment issues- some develop PTSD. Some service members have experienced serious injuries, be it traumatic brain injury, or physical injuries that have caused major changes in physical appearance and sense of self. Wherever they are on the spectrum, adjusting to home life after service can be difficult. Supportive intervention is critical in the first few months while they are readjusting, and after that help is still needed.

Not only are people sometimes looking for new careers and dealing with physical rehabilitation, they are also readjusting to being with their families and friends more often, and coping with the emotional traumas of deployment. Deployment length varies, and is sometimes extended, making life unpredictable. This makes for a stressful lack of control, and can cause soldiers to avoid closeness while they’re away. Returning home, they have to learn to be intimately connected to others again. Group music-making, like a drum or song circle, can help with this by giving group members choices, allowing them to be in control and decide what feels okay and what doesn’t. Sharing music together, whether it’s through listening or singing or playing an instrument side-by-side, can help to create a sense of community. Families may be able to regain their emotional closeness by discussing songs together, and a veteran may be able to choose a song that describes how s/he feels through lyrics or represents how s/he feels in the ‘mood’ of the music. Without having to verbally address issues that may be difficult to talk about, one can use music as a sort of ‘buffer’ to help others understand- removing that feeling of loneliness and anxiety.

Some veterans return with feelings of depression, anger, guilt, anxiety, and sometimes severe insomnia. There does seem to be more awareness of mental health issues in this time, but I think there will always be a slight stigma in addressing emotional traumas. For anyone, it can be difficult to show such strength and vitality on the outside and admit feeling low down on the inside. Veterans have a particularly low rate of help-seeking behavior in recent studies, which is why it’s so important to provide care quickly and freely. Support groups and activities should be available to all veterans, because they may not go out and look for a place to get help.

Any services can be beneficial to returning soldiers. I may be biased, but I think music is particularly helpful because of its inherent qualities. On a basic level, listening or playing to music can be a distraction to recurrent intrusive memories or negative thoughts. And it can be FUN. A lot of folks think that my job is to use music to relax my group members. I’ve only done a few sessions for relaxation, to be honest, and usually bedside in hospital or hospice. Most of my groups involve whatever kinds of music the group members like- be it John Denver or Bon Jovi or Madonna. Sometimes group members will cry, sometimes they sing with joy. But all in all, music just feels good. I think returning vets may be dealing with a new view of the world- one that’s difficult to adjust to. Playing music can be a joyful experience that energizes them, and feels safe. Music doesn’t have any expectations. If you have a conversation with someone, you may be thinking about their reaction and adjusting what you say so as not to hurt them or worry them or offend them. In music, you can hit a drum as hard as you’d like and it’ll bounce back. You can sing about things as loud as you want and that song will be there for you. Other people will listen to you sing and possibly understand you better, because when you sing they just have to listen without responding. Music is a very safe space to express oneself without judgment. And it can also be incredibly grounding. There are days when I feel so unfocused, but I turn on music with a driving bass line and a strong drum pattern, and my brain readjusts. This is why maybe ‘new age’ music isn’t the right choice for this population- when they are ready to go deeper, it could be a good time to work with some music and imagery. But old favorite songs can be a good start to working with veterans to improve their mood and release some feelings. Then we can move into music for relaxation, which can help with breathing and teach stress management techniques.

I also think songwriting can be a wonderful outlet, once individuals are ready to express themselves further, and on a higher level performance of said songs can really allow a person to show the world who they are and how they’re doing. Music is such an individual experience, it should be tailored to the needs of each person, and what may be a beneficial experience for one may not be for the next. Whatever each veteran chooses to participate in, I think music can help them regain a sense of identity, begin to feel comfortable interacting with civilians, and make the transition a better one.

For more information on the ways music therapists have worked with veterans, check out the resources listed on this page: