Veterans With PTSD Use Music Therapy To Heal -- And Get Back To Work

music therapy ptsd

A decade ago, former Army Sgt. Leo Dunson was a good-natured 18-year-old eager to serve his country and make a difference after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Serving in Iraq, Dunson soon found it difficult to sleep, worried that he might wake up in an insurgent's makeshift torture chamber.

And there were other signs that the war was taking its toll. Once, he pressed a gun to an enemy's mouth; another time, he says, he joined fellow soldiers in taunting an Iraqi boy. Dunson (pictured above) also tried to kill himself, but was saved after the gun he put to his head failed to fire. "If I had died over there, I would have got a 21-gun salute, everybody would praise me like a king," he told The Associated Press. "What do I get now?"


Like many who have returned from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dunson, discharged from the Army in 2008, says that he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, a signature ailment of both conflicts, which has hampered many veterans from reintegrating into society.

PTSD is so common, in fact, that the Institute of Medicine recommended in July that troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan be screened for the condition at least once year and called for the federal government to investigate the effectiveness of existing treatments.

In the meantime, some veterans are finding relief from PTSD symptoms through music. They include Dunson, who turned to rap as a way to express his disappointments and build a new life. Music, he told the AP, is keeping him alive. Diagnosed by the military with PTSD, the Nevada-resident says that he has refused counseling or treatment at the local VA hospital.

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The divorced father of a daughter has made five albums in the past four years, the lyrics of which include violent images and words to describe his wartime service.

"I'm back and forth in my head and I don't know what's wrong," he raps in "PTSD." "At nights I shake. I feel like a stranger is in my home. Me and my wife can't get along."

In putting his words to music, Dunson hopes to helps other veterans confront their PTSD, even as he struggles with it himself.

Across the country, government doctors in several states, including Wisconsin, California and New Jersey, have begun experimental music therapy programs that rely on different, more soothing styles of music -- classical and acoustic -- to help veterans heal.

At a Veteran Affairs clinic in southern New Jersey, Dr. Mary Rorro frequently plays the viola during outpatient therapy sessions as a way to help Vietnam veterans open up and talk about their war experiences. Known as the "Violin Doc," Rorro, a psychiatrist, knows the symptoms of PTSD among veterans all too well.

"They suffer from recurrent intrusive memories," Rorro told public-radio station WNYC during a recent interview. Combat veterans' nightmares can be very vivid and real, disrupting sleep and result in night sweats, she said. "Some of them even now feel like they could be back in Vietnam, even though they know that they're back in safe country."

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Research suggests that alternative therapies, such as the use of music, can help veterans to talk about the disturbing memories they have by reducing the amount of anxiety related to such thoughts.

"At times, music can serve as a springboard during discussion," Rorro said, though not everyone responds to the same type of music.

During a recent therapy session with 15 veterans, Rorro got a request for "anything by The Dead." But music with spoken words or lyrics often agitates PTSD patients. Instead, she played "Amazing Grace," "Anchors Away," and "Memory" from the musical, "Cats."

One of the patients, 62-year-old Charles Browne, said the music took him back to his youth. "Music has always been a respite for me," said Browne, who was drafted into the Army at age 20 and earned a Purple Heart for his service as an infantryman.

When Browne returned to civilian life, he suffered from anxiety that caused him to withdraw into himself. Four years ago, he started going to the VA clinic and began feeling better and sleeping longer at night.

Before he began therapy, Browne slept as little as an hour a night, but now typically sleeps five with the help of music played at bedtime, a suggestion Rorro gave him. "[T]o me there's nothing better than music," he told WNYC. "It's very important to me. It brings back good memories to me."

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