Six String Heroes: Using music to help veterans heal

Wayne Bridges of Palmyra, Mo., is one of seven veterans who have taken advantage of Six String Heroes' Quincy-based affiliates. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
Posted: Mar. 7, 2013 8:09 am Updated: Mar. 21, 2013 9:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Steve Stoner has spent two years recruiting veterans for a unique kind of military band.

Stoner, a Quincy native, has helped teach more than 100 veterans with disabilities to play the guitar. Six String Heroes, a St. Louis based nonprofit, uses the guitar to help those with post traumatic stress disorder and other disabilities cope with their difficulties. Once trained, the veterans jam together once a week.

"The strumming of the guitar or the vibration of the guitars helps them relax in a way that medicine never had," Stoner said.

Stoner piloted the program at the Jefferson Barracks VA Hospital and has expanded it to his hometown with the help of Second String Music and Vancil Performing Arts. Those businesses hope to aid more local veterans and raise additional funds for the program by sponsoring an evening of music and dancing at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Turner Hall. The Cheeseburgers and ClockWork will perform.

"All the money that gets raised goes directly to buying guitars and accessories for the veterans," Stoner said.

The organization provides eight free guitar lessons as well as the materials needed to learn. Wayne Bridges of Palmyra, Mo., is one of seven veterans who have taken advantage of Six String Heroes' Quincy-based affiliates. Bridges picked up his first guitar nearly two decades after his discharge in 1990.

The U.S. Army veteran needed a change in his life, and Six String Heroes offered him an opportunity to learn the guitar and consequently better manage his disability.

"I needed something," Bridges said. "I did a lot of just sitting in the house. It's done wonders."

When veterans complete the eight lessons, the organization gives the vet a new guitar and all the accessories needed to foster the new talent. As Bridges' passion grew, so did his guitar collection. Five instruments later, he figured another veteran could use the gifted instrument more than he could. He donated it back to Six String Heroes so another veteran taking lessons could practice.

"It's such a good program," Bridges said. "I want the guitar to help get other people involved."

Frank Haxel and his wife, Cindy Vancil of Vancil Performing Arts, said they became involved because they had several family members who had served in the military. They wanted their business to support those who had given so much to their country.

"These guys need help. They come back with post traumatic stress disorder," Haxel said. "We tried to help them through the healing power of music."

After Bridges finished his free lessons, he continued honing his musical skills. Now the music has brought him two equally gratifying social outlets. He sits in with the band Pepper Spray every other week, and he also plays the guitar at home with his 7-year-old daughter Riley.

"We're about at the same playing level," he said. "I'm teaching her ‘Breakdown' by Tom Petty. She loves that one."

During the free lessons, Stoner or one of the organization's instructors teaches the veteran three chords. Once they've mastered those three chords, the musician can play roughly 20 songs.

Like Bridges, the St. Louis veterans benefit from the social aspect, too. They meet for a Six String Heroes jam session once a week. They bring new songs to learn, and they continue expanding their skills together. Eventually, some of them learn enough skills that they can teach others entering the program.

Haxel hopes eventually Quincy can generate enough guitar-playing veterans to warrant weekly jam sessions. While the guitar soothes nerves, Stoner said present-day war to World War II veterans can benefit from the social aspect of the program.

"The crowds keep growing, so we keep coming back," Stoner said. "The program really has grown in the last two years."