Soldiers in the transition unit at Fort Leonard Wood are healing one strum of the guitar at a time with help from a Gravois area musician.
In April, retired music teacher Dave Dunklee with wife, C.J., began visiting the military base once a week to give guitar lessons to wounded warriors.
Two months in, The Healing Box Project has been an amazing experience, they say.
"It really opens your eyes and changes your outlook. Your problems don't seem so big after hearing what they've been through," C.J. says.
If music is feelings talking as the saying goes, then the guitars of these soldiers probably have a lot to say. Many of the soldiers have post traumatic stress disorder and have suffered brain and other injuries.
"The most rewarding part is to see the smile on their face the first time they play a little bit. There are a couple of chords you can play with just one finger. So I can teach them enough in just five minutes for them to start to feel like they're playing. Then they strum, strum, strum and I'll play lead melody, and I say we're jamming," Dave says.
"Learning guitar is really a lifelong gift. Once you learn, you can always pick up the guitar a play a little bit," says Dave. In retirement, he has continued to play in a local band called Nasty Habit.
They call the program The Healing Box Project after the old folk guitars made from wooden boxes modified with a pole neck and strings. The program is optional for soldiers returning from an overseas deployment in a combat zone who are transitioning into civilian life or back into military service.
Dave and C.J. go to Fort Wood on Thursdays, and Dave is available for lessons for most of the day. Soldiers come and go as they can around medical appointments. Sessions throughout the day usually see anywhere from three to eight people. Soldiers are usually in the transition unit for four to six weeks before being discharged if they're leaving the service or to transfer to wherever they're being stationed next.
Playing the guitar even just the basics of a beginner can help relieve stress from changes related to life changes as a result of an injury or the loss of a friend - giving them a positive outlet, says Dave.
In one of the groups that he has worked with, a soldier, Sgt. Jason Golden, who already knew how to play guitar attended the open sessions and played a song he had written about losing a friend in battle. After the first line, one of the other soldiers broke down crying.
Page 2 of 3 - When the lessons sometimes get emotional, Dave just listens and gives them a little hug.
"It's easy to put an arm around their shoulder - a little way to say glad you're here," he says.
At a barbecue in May as one of the group's completed their time in the transition unit, Dave's bandmates Steve Rhodes on drums and Ed Tucker on bass guitar joined him to provide entertainment. Golden and beginning guitarist Sgt. Sean Weis joined them for a few songs, including the one written by Golden.
It was an emotional performance that moved everyone there, says Dave.
But despite everything the soldiers have been through though their attitude and outlook is positive, according to C.J.
"They're all so receptive and thankful as we close out each time. They all say thank you and more than once. They're very proud of being in the military and want to still be in the military. They have that much heart for their country," she says.
Dave was inspired with the idea for The Healing Box Project after watching a TV commercial for the Wounded Warriors Project featuring country singer Toby Keith.
"I was watching the commercial and he was talking about how you could donate, and all of a sudden, there it is. I just knew what I was supposed to do," says Dave.
After that, it wasn't hard to track down a transition unit at Fort Wood. In late 2012, they began organizing the program. Dave took Red Cross training in March and received additional vaccinations.
While that was the moment when the idea coalesced, the spark for Dunklee's desire to help soldiers and show them his thanks and appreciation came from his son's service. Dustin Dunklee - Morgan County prosecuting attorney - recently returned from a deployment in Kuwait.
With the success of The Healing Box Project, Dave says he would like to see it grow to other transition units at other bases and military hospitals and encourages other musicians to get involved and see how they can help.
"It would be wonderful to have The Healing Box Project going on all over," he says. "And with the military getting more people out of Afghanistan, there are more and more coming home who will be coming into transition units and could benefit from it."
For C.J., it is a meaningful way to thank the members of our armed forces who have given so much.
"We need to thank these people. People like to see the good things, but with something like this - when these guys come home injured - people sometimes put on blinders," she says.
Page 3 of 3 - Through donations to The Healing Box Project, a registered non-profit organization, the Dunklees try to supply the soldiers with everything they need to get started including guitar, picks, strap and instructional book.
Dave estimates it takes about $200-$250 to completely outfit a soldier with the basics for a beginning guitarist.
So far, they have also been able to present four soldiers their own guitars to keep. But they are now looking for donations to be able to give guitars to another four soldiers.
Any type of donation would help. Just $1 buys four picks, says Dave.
If any musicians who might have an old guitar lying around, the Dunklees will dust it off, put strings it or fix whatever is needed to get it back in playing shape for a beginning player.
Local musicians Mike Benny and Jeff Cooper have both donated a couple of nice guitars. C.J. also raises money when Nasty Habit performs by taking $5 donations for lime green The Healing Box Project coozies they had made.
To donate or for more information about The Healing Box Project, contact Dave Dunklee at 573-372-1234 or email@example.com. You may also mail donations to The Healing Box Project, P.O. Box 66, Gravois Mills, MO 65037