- Associated Press - Monday, November 17, 2014

SAN ANTONIO (AP) - It was a ragtag band jamming in a small outbuilding on the grounds of the San Antonio Military Medical Center.

Some of the half-dozen guitarists were still learning the fingering for the A and E chords; others were more experienced. It didn’t sound great, but that didn’t matter. The men, all wounded warriors, were having fun.

Volunteers with the Warrior Cry Music Project were teaching them music as part of their healing process. Based in San Antonio, the program gives wounded soldiers at military hospitals around the nation musical instruments - guitars, drums, horns and more - and volunteer instructors show them how to play.

“They come in here and they’re no longer soldiers,” instructor Christian Lee told the San Antonio Express-News (http://bit.ly/14aFzqw). “They’re musicians.”

For Army Staff Sgt. Thomas Keller, strumming his Taylor six-string acoustic guitar is an escape from stress.

“It’s a great way to relax,” he said.

The project’s founder, Robert Henne, dreamed up the program about five years ago after music helped in his recovery from a serious car accident. He thought similar therapy could benefit injured troops he observed at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where his wife was working as an Air Force physician.

“If you can volunteer to go somewhere and offer life and limb for your country, the least we can do is sit and play music with you and help you during your worst time,” he said.

Henne, who now lives with his wife in San Antonio, brought the program to Brooke Army Medical Center’s occupational therapy services in March. Warrior Cry is a division of a nonprofit called Global Training Ministries.

Music benefits wounded warriors in a variety of ways, Henne said. It gives them a positive goal to work toward and offers them a means of self-expression. It also helps build confidence, which can take a hit when a soldier sustains an injury, he said.

“They say, ‘I can’t do this, I can’t do that.’ They start doubting themselves,” he said. “It’s not just learning to play music. It helps reprogram what’s going on in the head.”

That moment when all the practicing pays off and the notes transform into a popular song from the radio? It’s a big accomplishment that offers them a real rush, Lee said.

Narciso Sorio Jr., a certified occupational therapy assistant who supervises the sessions, said the lessons help to increase attention span and focus affected by traumatic brain injuries.

For Army Spc. Ricardo Cesar, a mechanic who has undergone surgery for nerve damage in his hands, plucking the strings of his guitar is helping him regain dexterity and strength in his fingers, he said.

The benefits go beyond that, though.

“Just parking here and knowing I’m coming in here lowers my blood pressure,” said Cesar, 39, who is being medically retired.

“This is my time. This is my therapy. Now when I’m starting to transition (to civilian life), at home, I can shut the world out and start playing my guitar, rather than, you know, drinking or doing all types of other nonsense that I don’t need to be doing.”

Army Pfc. Drake Chavarria, 19, has been attending the sessions about six weeks, and they’ve become a bright spot in days filled with medical appointments.

“This makes me calm down and just have fun,” Chavarria said. “You don’t have to worry about no rules or nothing. It’s a stress-free environment.”

He wants to learn to play Spanish guitar, but he loves all kinds of music: “It’s is a big part of my life. It helps a lot. If I’m mad, sad, happy, everything, I listen to music.”

On a recent rainy morning, Lee worked individually with the guys, helping one tune his instrument, teaching another about arpeggios. More advanced students, such as Keller, helped the less experienced ones. One wanted to know how to play Bad Company’s signature song, “Bad Company.” There was a lot of smiling and laughing.

For the jam session that wrapped up the morning, they were joined by instructor Will Bower thumping a conga drum and Sorio playing the electric piano.

Next week, they’ll add more chord progressions and lyrics and perhaps write a song for a fundraising CD Warrior Cry is recording, Lee said.

Bower, a veteran and Warrior Cry volunteer, said the project helps soldiers cope with physical injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’m 70 percent disabled, but I can still drum,” he said. “When you play music, you forget all about the pain, you forget all about being upset or whatever’s going on in your life. You forget about it, and you’re happy. Even if it’s short-lived, when you’re playing music, that’s the best you’ve ever felt.”

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Information from: San Antonio Express-News, http://www.mysanantonio.com

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