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Healing through music

JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. (AFNS) -- Former Maj. Frank Vassar pulled out his cellphone and played a song that he wrote and recorded as other wounded Airmen listened closely.

“… Bombs going off inside my head. Sometimes wishing I was dead. Demons deep inside me. I pray so hard I can’t fall asleep. …”

Vassar, 46, explained to about a dozen Airmen at a music therapy session Nov. 19 on Joint Base Andrews that the song, “Evil,” described his post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that he battles using music.

“Music has always been a release for me,” Vassar, of Oklahoma City, said after the Air Force Wounded Warrior event. “It calms me and puts me into a different world for a while.”

The world he generally inhabits is haunted with memories from three combat tours with security forces during his 13-year Air Force career that ended with him being medically retired.

“Every time I’m dreaming, it always ends in a blast or a firefight. That’s what I wake up with,” he said.

Some flashbacks stem from a close call with an enemy rocket while in Iraq in 2004. As he walked toward a courtyard in Baghdad’s Green Zone, a 122 mm rocket landed about 50 feet from him, causing him to black out and become disoriented.

“I was trying to figure out what just happened,” he recalled after the blast. “I looked up and the whole building was moving 15 feet to side to side. But it wasn’t. It was in my head.”

Finding solace

Years after seeing two friends get killed in Iraq, explosive ordnance disposal specialist Tech. Sgt. Christopher Ferrell now hopes music can curb his suicidal thoughts.

“It helps me find peace,” he said about music after his first introduction to the noninvasive therapy. “I just felt that I could deal with my demons on my own time.”

Ferrell, who is based at Andrews, said he’s been on five combat tours in his 12 years with the Air Force. While deployed in late 2009, a teammate next to him was killed when he triggered a roadside bomb, throwing Ferrell 15 feet into a wall. Two months later, Ferrell said he saw a second teammate fatally step on another bomb.

Since then, he’s struggled with the memories and has contemplated taking his own life.

“After over a decade of war it’s kind of boiled over,” he said.

With a wife and three children, including a baby, Ferrell believes they deserve better from him. Music could be a useful approach, because it lets him focus on the good things in life.

“It taps into so many different parts of the brain,” he said. “If there is empty space in my head, it fills up with negative things from my past. So, if I can fill it up with something positive, it helps.”

Music therapy can reduce stress, anxiety and pain, as well as engage military members in a meaningful activity as opposed to destructive thoughts or substance abuse.

“It distracts them and gives them something to do that can become a new habit. It’s kind of like retraining the brain and desensitizing it in a way,” said Nicki Rubin, a music therapist who helped teach groups of Airmen attending the weeklong wounded warrior event.

Songs can also make it easier for military members to open up about past experiences that may be difficult to do in regular therapy sessions.

“A lot of times traditional talk therapy isn’t efficient or helpful to veterans who may not be able to verbalize how they’re feeling,” Rubin said. “So music is a way for them to communicate and express themselves that seems a little less threatening, and can convey more sometimes than words.”

And through his music, that’s exactly what Vassar tries to do.

“It allows me to talk about something that happened without talking about it,” he said.