Healing Veterans With Music

By Kristina Skorbach
Kristina Skorbach
Kristina Skorbach
Kristina Skorbach is a Canadian correspondent based in New York City covering entertainment news.
November 22, 2013 Updated: November 22, 2013

NEW YORK—With teary eyes and a keen expression on his face, Marine Corps veteran Earl Parks strummed the strings of an electric guitar. He was playing in a duet with Jean Newton the executive director of The Music Conservancy of Westchester, where Parks gets his music therapy. It is part of a new program called, Healing Our Heroes.

The program began when founding sponsor, Joel Breitkopf, approached Newton last winter, and suggested that music therapy be given to veterans. Half a year later, the conservancy collected enough funds to provide scholarships for eight veterans. It became an official vendor for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

The VA refers potential veterans for the program. Once selected, the veterans receive a 45-minute, one-on-one music lesson with a music therapist every week for two years.

Learning music for people like Parks was an important step in dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and physical injury.

“In my life, music is the gateway to peace,” Parks said. At the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum Thursday morning, Parks shared the difficulties he faced after coming back from service.

While serving in the Marine Corps between 1974 and 1979, Parks reached the rank of infantry operations specialist with an instinct to “kill, kill, kill,” he said.

“They took a weapon out of my hand and put an instrument in my hand,” Parks said.

Learning music, and feeling like he could accomplish something positive, was a transformational step for Parks. He always felt the infantry was the “bottom of the barrel in the military,” and when someone gave him a compliment after he played at a concert on Veterans Day at the Intrepid, he was deeply moved.

“That’s like someone putting gold in your pocket,” Parks said.

Working with veterans at the conservancy, Dr. Noelle Berger, counseling psychologist at the VA Medical Center found that music helped veterans with traumatic brain injury (TBI) to improve their memory and attention, and help them feel more relaxed.

She said veterans at the VA come by her office asking about the program every day. The only problem now, is that there’s not enough space for them.

“Eventually, we’ll have a veterans band or orchestra,” Berger said.

Newton also hopes to expand the program. They are currently looking for additional sponsors for the program to bring music classes to 30 veterans next year. Newton also wants to extend the program and send music therapists to VA hospitals to reach more “fragile patients.”

Kristina Skorbach is a Canadian correspondent based in New York City covering entertainment news.