Mission to get guitars in hands of struggling vets hits all the right notes with artist

·4 min read

It all started with an ad Rebecca Waechter spotted on Instagram, one that struck the right chord with the Melbourne woman on several levels.

The ad sought artists to paint guitars that could be auctioned off to support the "Operation Art Strings" program offered nationwide by nonprofit Guitars for Vets. Centered on music as healing, the program is focused on veterans struggling with physical injuries, PTSD, and other emotional distress.

Veterans are offered guitar lessons and a new acoustic guitar as part of what the organization calls "a unique therapeutic alternative." Operation Art Strings, which has a Viera chapter, is run by volunteers, primarily through the Department of Veterans Affairs facilities and community-based medical centers.

Local artist Rebecca Waechter stands with Brian Donnelly, Viera chapter coordinator for Guitars for Vets, holding a guitar she painted to raise money for the organization. Guitars for Vets, a nonprofit based in Wisconsin, gives guitars to veterans who receive 10 weeks of free guitar lessons along with the instrument after instruction.
Local artist Rebecca Waechter stands with Brian Donnelly, Viera chapter coordinator for Guitars for Vets, holding a guitar she painted to raise money for the organization. Guitars for Vets, a nonprofit based in Wisconsin, gives guitars to veterans who receive 10 weeks of free guitar lessons along with the instrument after instruction.

And Waechter, an artist who also has a master's degree in professional counseling, couldn't be happier about the chance to be part of the Art Strings effort.

"It caught my eye, because even though I’m not musically talented, I like to use my business and artistic talent to give back to others," Waechter said.

"This is relevant to the artwork I create, my business, and who I am in many ways."

Just let her count the ways the program resonates beyond her professional background.

Her father was in the Army, his father was in the Army, and his father before him — and Waechter is a member-at-large of the Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

Even closer to home: Her husband Joe, who's stationed at Patrick Space Force Base, is an active duty C-17 pilot in the Air Force. The scene she painted on the guitar reflects that connection.

"It’s a tight community. We were both really affected by the recent mission to Afghanistan and what the C-17 pilots had to do to get people out of Kabul," Waechter said.

"Most of them flew out of Charleston, South Carolina, which is where we met and where we are likely headed to next. It hits us both hard ... it was such good timing between this event and being chosen to paint this guitar. I felt I had to honor what the aircrews did to help the people who helped us in Afghanistan."

Local artist Rebecca Waechter painted this guitar, which will be auctioned to raise money for Guitars for Vets. The organization, which has a Viera chapter, gives guitars to veterans who receive 10 weeks of free guitar lessons along with their instrument after instruction.
Local artist Rebecca Waechter painted this guitar, which will be auctioned to raise money for Guitars for Vets. The organization, which has a Viera chapter, gives guitars to veterans who receive 10 weeks of free guitar lessons along with their instrument after instruction.

This is Waechter's first finished project for the Operation Art Strings program. The instrument will be shipped back to their headquarters in Wisconsin.

Music can help lower anxiety levels, Waechter said. It can also be another form of communication on top of songwriting, and can help keep people from isolating.

"Not everyone wants to go to a therapist and talk about their feelings," she said. "Picking up a guitar or songwriting is a lot less intimidating than talking directly about a traumatic experience ... There is a scientific basis behind music therapy, but I would consider music therapy to be more therapist-led and intentional, whereas Guitars for Vets gives these guys a less formal opportunity to share their struggles with someone who can identify with what they’re going through."

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Brian Donnelly of Viera sees that happen firsthand as coordinator for the Viera chapter, which currently has three to four students at a time taught by a couple of instructors.

The main focus of the effort, he said: to try and prevent veteran suicide. According to the CDC, veterans have an adjusted suicide rate 52.3% greater than the non-veteran U.S. adult population.

Guitars for Vets, a nonprofit organization based in Wisconsin, gives free guitars and guitar lessons to veterans struggling with physical injuries, PTSD, and other emotional distress as part of "a unique therapeutic alternative" called Operation Art Strings.
Guitars for Vets, a nonprofit organization based in Wisconsin, gives free guitars and guitar lessons to veterans struggling with physical injuries, PTSD, and other emotional distress as part of "a unique therapeutic alternative" called Operation Art Strings.

An Army veteran who served as a combat engineer in Vietnam between 1966 and 1968, Donnelly has played guitar for years, and knows the benefits making music offers.

And there's a local waitlist filled with veterans who want to learn to play. Interest is strong, especially since a VA newsletter highlighted the Guitars for Vets mission.

"We need teachers, and we're looking for venues where we can bring people together because the VA in Viera is still closed to that type of event," Donnelly said.

Waechter may never know who'll play the guitar she painted, but they can rest assured they will never be forgotten by the woman who splashed red, white and blue love across it.

"After the last troops left Afghanistan, there were a lot of veterans from all branches that questioned if the work they did in that country had meant anything," she said.

"I just really want them to know that this donation is an good example of how we don’t always see the positive effect we have on others, but that doesn’t make it any less significant."

Contact Kennerly at 321-242-3692 or bkennerly@floridatoday.com. Twitter: @bybrittkennerly Facebook: /bybrittkennerly.

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Volunteer with Guitars for Vets

The waitlist at Guitars for Vets is long and volunteer instructors with musical ability are needed. Volunteers can work for one hour per day, one day a week for about 10 weeks at a time to teach simple chords to a referred veteran. For information on volunteering with the Viera branch of Guitars for Vets, contact Brian Donnelly at gavinspoppop@gmail.com.

This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Brevard artist jumps in to help nonprofit get guitars to struggling vets

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