Mu­sic Ther­apy

Jim Lowther pairs mem­bers of the mil­i­tary with guitars to com­bat PTSD

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - VIVIEN FELLEGI

Jim Lowther pairs mem­bers of the mil­i­tary with guitars to com­bat PTSD.

JOHN BENOIT WILL never for­get the mo­ment he set eyes on “Va­lerie,” the gui­tar that helped him sing his way back to life. In 2005, suf­fer­ing from se­vere post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der, the once-ex­tro­verted medic quit the army. For the next decade, he lived off his mil­i­tary pen­sion while holed up in a cot­tage in ru­ral Nova Sco­tia with his pet rab­bit, dog and two cats. But last May, when a friend told him about Guitars for VETS Canada—a char­ity that matches gen­tly used in­stru­ments with dis­abled vet­er­ans—Benoit de­cided it was time to make a move.

The self-styled her­mit had not in­ter­acted in a group set­ting in years, and the drive to the pro­gram’s head­quar­ters 50 kilo­me­tres away in Halifax left him pan­icked. By the time he ar­rived at his des­ti­na­tion, Benoit’s heart was pound­ing and he was drip­ping sweat.

After scan­ning the room for ex­its through which he could escape if nec­es­sary, he tried out a few guitars. Noth­ing. Then he picked up a dented, gold-hued Hohner and strummed sev­eral notes. As the acous­tic gui­tar vi­brated against his chest, Benoit felt stress seep out of his body. “There was an im­me­di­ate bond,” he says.

“It was like fall­ing in love.”

Jim Lowther, a 47-year-old army vet­eran and the founder of Guitars for VETS Canada, had fallen first. He served in Bos­nia in 1997, and though the war had ended, its ram­i­fi­ca­tions and the eth­nic di­vide were still very

real. When a young Bos­nian cook work­ing for his unit was mur­dered, Lowther felt he should have done more to pro­tect her. After re­turn­ing to Canada, he was tor­mented by vi­sions of her corpse. “The past would come on like a freight train,” he says.

Lowther hid in the base­ment of his Halifax bun­ga­low to avoid lash­ing out at his wife, Deb­bie, and their three chil­dren. On one es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult day in 2010, he grabbed a gui­tar and started play­ing “I Should Have Known Bet­ter” by the Bea­tles. As he con­cen­trated on the song, old ghosts re­treated and the present mo­ment flick­ered into fo­cus. Then, a mir­a­cle: an in­stant of peace. “The crazy thoughts in my head had stopped,” he says. Lowther be­gan play­ing reg­u­larly.

Though Lowther’s own men­tal health grad­u­ally im­proved, many of his fel­low com­bat­ants were suf­fer­ing. A spate of mil­i­tary sui­cides in early 2014—five deaths within a few weeks of each other across Canada—shook him deeply. “I’d been in that dark­ness, in a place where I’d thought of dy­ing,” he says. Hop­ing to help oth­ers find so­lace, he de­cided to spread the mu­sic.

To­day, Guitars for VETS Canada has more than 100 vol­un­teers, with team lead­ers in ma­jor cities co­or­di­nat­ing the de­liv­ery of guitars to vet­er­ans and still-serv­ing sol­diers. The mu­sic in­dus­try has also stepped up: the mu­sic-store chain Long & McQuade is the drop-off and pick-up point for the do­nated guitars; pro­fes­sional in­struc­tors of­fer 10 free lessons to newly en­rolled par­tic­i­pants; and Great Big Sea’s Séan McCann raised $50,000 for the or­ga­ni­za­tion at a ben­e­fit con­cert in 2017.

To date, the char­ity has served more than 1,000 for­mer and cur­rent mem­bers of the mil­i­tary, who are re­ferred by their com­pa­tri­ots, ther­a­pists and case managers from Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Canada. “We’ve had vets tell us that the gui­tar we sent helped them cut back on their med­i­ca­tions, or even saved their lives,” says Lowther. As for Benoit, Lowther’s or­ga­ni­za­tion coaxed him out of his com­fort zone. A month after claim­ing “Va­lerie,” Benoit en­rolled in mu­sic lessons with other re­tired ser­vice per­son­nel. Dur­ing breaks, the group swapped com­bat sto­ries. As he rec­og­nized sim­i­lar strug­gles in his fel­low stu­dents, his feel­ings of alien­ation abated.

“The Guitars for VETS Canada pro­gram gave me back the sense of be­long­ing I’d lost,” Benoit says. “And with that came hope.”

Team lead­ers in

ma­jor cities co­or­di­nate the de­liv­ery of guitars to vet­er­ans and still-serv­ing

sol­diers.

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