Alan Harrison, E6 Boatswains Mate 1st Class, is a 21-year US Navy veteran who’s taking part in the Guitars for Vets program at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Photo by Tim Evans
sixth lesson, and thereafter they can continue
learning through group lessons. G4V began
in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but has chapters
in several other states—as well as one in
Afghanistan—and it’s receiving requests from
VA centers across the country. Six strings at a
time, it’s working miracles.
To Hell and Back Again
Van Buskirk and Nettesheim met in 2007,
when Van Buskirk became Nettesheim’s guitar student. It was a fortuitous step on the
long road to recovery for a lifetime pacifist
who joined the military to uphold family duty.
Although the Peace Corps was his first call-
ing, Van Buskirk joined the Marine Corps and
became a reconnaissance scout and sniper
during a time when, he says, “We were a
bunch of young men confused by John Wayne
movies, masculinity, and serving your country.
I was assigned to Albrook, the hottest, best
team battalion. We were on patrol schedules
in Laos, and it was so dangerous that all the
guys left letters and valuables for their loved
ones because no one expected to return
alive. Because Albrook was so good, the
whole team would go on patrol. Except they
wouldn’t let me go—I was too inexperienced.
One day, the North Vietnamese set up an
ambush for Albrook. They shot down the heli-
copter with a rocket and all the guys died.”
During Van Buskirk’s 1968-1969 tour, he did
40 patrols in Laos and Cambodia, lost his best
friend there, and witnessed unspeakable hor-
rors that remain with him today. Upon return,
he was hospitalized for a year and told he had
“shell shock,” as it was called then. “They didn’t
know how to treat it,” he says. “I was in a deep,
deep depression. You feel like you are in a black
tunnel that has no light on the other side. I just
wanted some light, but I couldn’t see it.”
Van Buskirk struggled to maintain a normal
life. He married, became a father, worked, and
went back to school to earn degrees in sociol-
ogy and anthropology. Though he attempted
to become an adjusted civilian, Vietnam never
left him. “I mostly had a sense that ‘I just don’t
get it,”’ he says. “It plagued me. Some people
live joyously, but for veterans with PTSD, we’re
in survival mode.” Van Buskirk still experiences
flashbacks and nightmares.
In 2005, after losing two jobs, Van Buskirk
was placed on full chronic disability. As part
of his search for ways to deal with depression, he bought a guitar. He had tried playing
years before, but lacked focus due to PTSD.
Cream City Music, in Brookfield, Wisconsin,
recommended Nettesheim as an instructor.
The lessons became educational for both
men: Van Buskirk learned to play, while
Nettesheim learned about Vietnam and the
struggles returning veterans faced. They realized they were on to something.
Guitars for Vets debuted in the Milwaukee
VA spinal rehab unit, where Van Buskirk and
Nettesheim performed for paralyzed veterans whose lives are spent in wheelchairs and