Healing for Veterans; One Beat at a Time

By: Christine Stevens, MSW, MA, MT-BC 

Archie slowly wheeled himself over to the drum tent. Despite a large white cast extending a few inches in the direction where his foot used to be, Archie was tapping his good leg to the beat. He pointed to a drum he wanted, and we immediately brought it to him. 

What happened next was truly miraculous. We all watched as Archie's face transformed from a pain-stricken victim to a liberated warrior, powerfully playing his drum with a mallet and slowly beginning to smile. The other veterans cheered him on as Archie played a solo. When the circle closed, Archie exclaimed, “it's the first time I felt GOOD.” 

According to Mr. Sadhu Khalsa, MSW, founder of the Healing the Warrior Program in New Mexico, true lasting healing must include the body, mind, and spirit. He states that approximately 30% of the Armed services veterans coming back from Iraq and almost 80% of the National Guard are experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. According to Khalsa, there are 26 million veterans in the United States from all wars. Medicine today focuses primarily on symptom abatement. But we need to get to the core and address the spiritual aspects of the healing process. 

Perhaps it's time to bring mind-body medicine to V.A. treatment, for the recovery of Iraq soldiers returning with wounds both visible and invisible. We face our greatest humanitarian crisis in America as we seek to support the healing and recovery of our veterans. Tapping into all areas of mind, body, and spirit, drumming can play a key role in an integrative program within a patient-centered approach to recovery, healing, and wellness. 

Why drumming with Veterans? 

There are three evidence-based benefits of group drumming that apply to treating veterans. 

1. Self-expression. 
For veterans, the drum becomes a voice of emotions for which words alone cannot express. 
2. Camaraderie. 
Soldiers train in groups or platoons, go to war in groups, and then return to their individual lives alone. They miss a sense of camaraderie needed for recovery. 
3. Empowerment. 
The drum is the instrument of the warrior. Strong. Percussive. Loud. It harkens to our strength with its tough skin stretched over a circular frame. The drum empowers veterans to transform themselves from disabled to capable. 

One Beat at a Time - case in point 

On a warm Los Angeles day in August, veterans gathered in an open area of the V.A. Hospital for a program sponsored by Brentwood Presbyterian Church organizer Richard Urrea. The event featured a shared drum circle tent where the sound of the drums amplified the powerful effect on the veterans and volunteers. 

It was beautiful. I loved it. I could hear us making music from the building. Please come back again. We need all the help we can get, was the response from Robert Ramirez of Monrovia. According to Roy Clark of Las Vegas, I think its fabulous. It makes you feel rejuvenated and puts you in touch with Nature. 

Volunteers from the Brentwood Church who had never experienced drumming commented, “It was synergistic. It carried what the message of the event was about. Coming together for community.” Volunteer Dick Hilquist commented “It was inspiring to everybody. To me. To the veterans. The drum circle brought everybody into mutual action.”

Drumming volunteers were equally moved by the experience. The drum circle created a new found willingness and desire to converse and socialize. The veterans shared their personal stories and thanked us, stated Susan Hall from San Diego, founder of Rhythm Works. According to John Lacques of Ventura, founder of Drum Time, "both the verbal and non-verbal conversations that I personally experienced were profound. It was humbling to be in the presence of men and women that have experienced things that I cannot imagine, and then have this healing experience unite and uplift all of our spirits!" 

Director and Founder of Arts & Services for Disabled, Helen Dolas, commented at one point, veterans in wheelchairs and holding canes formed a line playing shakers and maracas. Nothing stopped the sheer drive to be part of the music and let go of the pain.
Extra Precautions 

PTSD symptoms, according to Dr. John Burt, PhD, MT, can be provoked and triggered by loud drum sounds. Therefore, avoid the sound of loud banging drums. Enhance the drumming with melodic instruments; such an xylophone, flute, guitar, and even reed or brass instrument. As one veteran gun-man commented, This doesn't bother me at all. This is MUSIC; not WAR. Secondly, be mindful of the physical concerns and pace the group to avoid over-excursion that can cause pain. And thirdly, leave a space in the set up of chairs in the circle for individuals with wheelchairs. Make sure to choose appropriate drums and shakers for individuals in wheelchairs experiencing physical limitations. Find ways to ensure that every person, no matter how limited they may appear, participates fully and recognizes that they are an important part of the drum circle. 

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