Veterans strum toward better health with Columbia project

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COLUMBIA — It all started with Dave and CJ Dunklee watching a commercial about Toby Keith saluting America’s wounded warriors.

“So I said to my husband, ‘Well, we can do something like that,’” CJ Dunklee said.

And so the Healing Box Project was born, with its purpose to supply disabled veterans with free guitars and lessons for protecting American liberty.

A lot has changed about the project since its start four years ago, including its location.

It began at Fort Leonard Wood Army Base, but government cuts lead to the closing of its Warrior Transition Unit, leaving many veterans searching for a new facility.

The Dunklees decided the Harry S. Truman V.A. Hospital in Columbia would be perfect for their project and allow them to expand their reach.

“Now instead of only seeing six or ten people per week we can see around 20,” CJ Dunklee said. “And we have split [the lessons] into two weekly classes an hour long.”

The basis of the project is to provide the veterans with a positive outlet to connect with friends and improve on a variety of skills.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression are very real, and often silent, issues that countless veterans face.

A person with PTSD is at least twice as likely to commit or attempt suicide, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. They are also twice as likely to experience substance abuse. 

Roughly 22 veterans commit suicide every day, which translates to one suicide death every 65 minutes.

Although veterans and service members only make up around 9 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, they account for one in four suicides throughout the country.

Many veterans have found that therapy, especially with music, has been their saving grace.

“We’ve all got something in common, and we all have a common interest,” Veteran Cregg Snyder said. “When we can sit and enjoy the music and free our minds through the music it really helps, especially with the P.T.S.D. and severe depression.”

After volunteering for tour tours in Vietnam, Army Veteran Jim Gaertner returned to the U.S. and feared his days as a musician were over.

He played lead guitar in a rock band throughout his high school career, traveling around Missouri and neighboring states, making music and timeless jams.

But once Gaertner came home after spending virtually all of his time in the jungle and bush with the infantry, he realized that a part of him he didn’t expect to, had drastically changed.

“I picked up a guitar and tried to play again and found that my hands weren’t doing what my brain told them to do,” Gaertner said. “I got really depressed and disgusted with it and got rid of all my equipment and never really picked it up until now, until this project started with the V.A.”

Gaertner said that he has increasingly enjoyed his involvement with the Healing Box Project and hopes to see more progress with his guitar skills in the future.

“I’m still trying to get my hands to do what my brains tells them, but I’m hoping that with time I can at least play well enough to entertain myself and other people,” Gaertner said.

So far the project has given away 72 professional instruments, along with comprehensive method books Dave Dunklee published in 2003. The books range from beginner to advanced stages of guitar-playing.

“No matter what stage the guitar player is when they come into the class, they can use the book at any level,” Dave Dunklee said. “Healing begins with the first strum.”

Music therapy has a variety of benefits, both physical and mental.

“There are some things that physically playing guitar can improve,” Dave Dunklee said. “Whether it’s finger manipulability or cognitive recognition or cognitive thinking, those type of skills are also enhanced in guitar performance.”

Veteran Kelly Johnson said the project is a good outlet for his ailments and overall increases his enjoyment.

“I can take the anxiety I have and use this as another tool for better health,” Johnson said.

The Healing Box Project runs solely on donations, 100 percent of which are channeled into funding for guitars that are needed with every new round of veterans accepted into the program.

“We’re doing it to thank the soldiers for the things they’ve done, to protect our freedom and our liberty,” Dave Dunklee said. “It’s just something people in the public, us for example, can do to give back.”

The next fundraiser benefit for the project will be held on June 5 at the Fish & Company bar from noon to 6 P.M. at the Lake of the Ozarks.