Music in the military evolves to provide a balm for soldiers, families


    When Capt. Daniel Boothe was in charge of the Air Force band members deployed to Afghanistan in 2014, he saw the effect of music on troops as they traveled between far-flung bases.

    They performed on stage and in more modest venues, from noisy mess halls to small field hospitals for exhausted staffers. “I felt the caretakers of those being treated also deserved a morale boost,” he says.

    For some troops who attended or happened upon their shows, the songs could be exactly the escape they needed, a connection to home, or a source of motivation. “When you listen to [Beethoven’s] ‘Ode to Joy,’ you feel like you can conquer things, even though it was written by a person so broken that he couldn’t hear what he wrote.”

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    For others, however, Captain Boothe began to notice that the music “evoked an emotional response that may not have always been comfortable for them. You’d say superficially of course we were there to entertain, but I think there’s more going on there.”

    Boothe had learned a little about music therapy in college, and concerts designed to be “acoustically, sonically safe.” Some troops “might not be able to react well,” he knew, “to your normal John Philip Sousa boom crash boom crash.” 

    When Boothe returned from Afghanistan to work in the Pentagon, he had an idea to build upon what he’d seen at war. “I thought about what it would be like if I’d had a music therapist with me to take what we’re doing to the next level.” He hustled through the halls of the Pentagon and around Washington, D.C., to drum up support. 

    Today, the Department of Defense has two major programs in place to help integrate music into treatment for troops struggling with post-traumatic stress and brain injuries. At the same time, the number of music therapists working with service members and veterans throughout the United States is growing, if slowly: up some 12 percent in the past four years. 

    The programs are helping not only troops, officials argue, but military musicians who occasionally report struggling to justify their existence in an era of budget cuts. “There’s always some suspicion about whether music is worth the money, however minimal,” Boothe notes. Robert Gates, the former defense secretary, used to joke that there were more band members in the military than foreign service officers in the State Department – an anecdote legendary among military musicians.

    In the bid to find more US taxpayer dollars to buy more weapons and fix old equipment ground down by years of war, the number of bands in the services decreased from 150 in 2012 to 136 in 2016, a decline of 9 percent, according to a Government Accountability Office report last year.

    Among Boothe’s bandmates, while there was curiosity, there was also some measure of skepticism around the idea of music therapy. “While no one on my side of the aisle questions the power of music, they were also wondering, ‘Does this fit our mission set?’ ” he says.

    As military musicians debated finding new relevance by teaming up with music therapists to help heal America’s war wounded, however, they realized they were also tapping into a field with a long military tradition.


    In the middle of World War II, although music was used as a “drive into battle,” as one commander noted at the time, there seemed to be little place for it in helping troops recuperate after war. On the battlefield itself, soldiers were barred from bringing their own musical instruments with them, though they often smuggled them in anyway.

    By the war’s end, the Army ultimately had a change of heart. “Music should be provided because it is one of the most effective vehicles for bringing a group together and for creating a spirit of fellowship,” read Technical Bulletin 198, the War Department’s first official instructions on the use of music in military hospitals. “Music provides an opportunity for self-expression,” it adds, “evoking pleasant memories of past experiences. Moods may thus be influenced through the proper use of music, while pent up emotions are often released.” 

    Decades later, music therapist Barbara Else began to notice a similar demand. She was living in Tucson, Ariz., near a military base where deployments were “frequent and high” as the nation was ramping up operations in Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. A senior policy advisor with the American Music Therapy Association, which consults with the military, Ms. Else formed one particular group, “Waiting Warriors,” for spouses with service members abroad. The group included children, too, many of whom had a parent who was just coming home from a deployment, or getting ready to go out again. 

    And what they really enjoyed, she found, was banging on drums.

    “They’re accessible and easy to use – anyone can do it,” Else says. “The kids could come and deal with their frustrations through music.” The loud drumming sometimes borne out of frustration became, with the help of the music therapists, a steady rhythm that helped to connect the group.

    The groups were popular, but Else found that they could be short-lived. “There’s a lot of turnover at bases,” and every time there is, “We’d have to start at square one again.”


    Today, the National Intrepid Center for Excellence branch at Fort Belvoir, Va., is set up much like a university, where service members struggling with post-traumatic stress and brain injuries build their own course schedules.

    About one-third of troops treated at the center get a referral for music therapy workshops, where they learn how to use songs to relax, and how to create their own music to express themselves. Military musicians work with the workshop groups as well, playing alongside the service members, talking through their compositions with them to learn where they would like to add emphasis and depth to their music.

    Last month, Jay Anderson, a chief warrant officer in the US Army’s Special Forces, was jamming after getting some instruction in songwriting. “They put on funky writers’ music, or whatever they call it, and we write for 20 minutes. They tell us if you do that for 20 minutes a day, it’ll help increase your brain activity, get your feelings out, and move on with your life.”

    He had traced his hand with a pen. “You know like how little kids make turkeys? We put the main theme on the center of the palm and on each finger we write a word. They tell us, ‘That’ll help get you there.’ ” He had a beat in mind. “Then I went on GarageBand, and started overlaying it with guitar and all these other things.” 

    Mr. Anderson had come to the center by way of Iraq, where he was out one night tracking down terrorist cells in 2007 when his team hit a roadside bomb. The Humvee driving behind them sped up to try to help, “but they couldn’t see us” for all of the smoke. “About 30 seconds [after the bomb blast] we all woke up. Then they slammed into the back of” the vehicle, he says. “It was not a good day.” 

    He continued working for months. “We only had seven of us on our team – we were supposed to have 12 – and I was like, ‘I’m going to be fine,’ even though I couldn’t turn my head.”

    Today, his songs tend to revolve around the aftermath of war. “Years of pushing those feelings aside, and things start to pile up.” In his unit alone, in one post-deployment stretch, there were three suicides. “After Afghanistan, one [fellow Special Forces soldier] comes back and commits suicide. He left a wife with two kids, and she was pregnant, and it was terrible, and it happened two more times. And it really hits home.” 

    As he continues to heal ahead of his 2019 retirement after 30 years in the Army, Anderson is reflective about the role of music in helping him sort through his feelings. “I’ve always been a lover of music, but I never seemed to actually learn to play.” He started guitar lessons for the first time this year at the Intrepid center.

    He has come to think of his songs “as poetry in motion,” he says. “They helped me cope with the fact that I did need some help.” During therapy, “I didn’t talk much, but after a while other people would say something and I’d think, ‘That’s exactly how I’m feeling.’ And another person would say, ‘That’s how I’m feeling.’ And I became more open about it – and then I began writing these songs.” 

    The military musicians helped him bring to life the vision he has in his mind, he says. “They ask me what’s prompting me to write, and I tell them about my experiences. Then they put their own jazzy little spin on it. 

    “To be able to collaborate with professional musicians,” he adds. “It’s given me the motivation to do more.” 

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