By Kim WheelerJune 8, 2017
Every Thursday afternoon, Gary Ouellette unlocks a closet full of instruments and sets up an impromptu music studio in the Warrior Transition Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. Within minutes, Soldiers trickle in and the sound of guitars, drums, keyboards, and laughter fill the air.
This is the WTB Music Group, an informal gathering of WTB soldiers, veterans, and volunteers who meet weekly to share the one thing they all have in common-- a love of music.
"This isn't a therapy group, and I'm not a therapist," said Ouellette, who has served as a social work assistant at the WTB for more than six years and created the group. "The group is purely for fun, enjoyment, and relaxation. The music is the therapy."
Ouellette first had the idea for the group three years ago after noticing how often Soldiers stopped in and asked to play the guitar he kept in his office. Plucking and strumming the strings seemed to lift a weight from their shoulders and bring a smile to their faces, even if only for a moment.
With instincts honed by 33 years as an Army chaplain's assistant and several years as a suicide prevention coordinator for the Army, Ouellette recognized a gateway to healing.
So, he began researching music therapy and music programs for veterans. Inspired by initiatives such as the Warrior Cry Music Project, Guitars for Vets, and the MusiCorps Wounded Warrior Band, he developed a plan that would provide WTB Soldiers with long-term access to instruments, help learning how to play, and a group of fellow music-lovers to "jam" with.
The two-fold program includes the weekly music group as well as an instrument lending closet that allows WTB Soldiers to choose from a wide variety of instruments to take home for as long as they are assigned to the unit.
"There are 170 people in the WTB, and this is a very stressful time for most of them," Ouellette said. "Music gives them something positive to focus on. And the group gives them a way to improve their mood, reduce feelings of depression and loneliness, and learn how to play an instrument for their own enjoyment."
The group is open to all WTB Soldiers whether they are practiced musicians or have never touched an instrument.
"I know a few chords and I can tune a guitar, but I'm not a music teacher," Ouellette said. "We're all at different levels, and the talented players work with those who are learning. They all teach each other here. Because it's not about performance -- it's about enjoying what music does for you."
One of those "talented players" who comes to help out is Spc. Andrew Tran, a combat medic assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Battalion, 23rd Infantry Regiment.
The self-taught musician can play 27 different instruments and enjoys showing others the basics and "how to make good sound."
Tran said he attends the group as often as his duties permit, because he's seen firsthand how it helps WTB Soldiers.
"A lot of people stay shuttered and to themselves," Tran said. "But playing in this group helps them meet new people, express themselves, and get involved."
And that is exactly what Ouellette hopes his program will achieve.
"What I really want people to do is get involved with music," he said. "Take an instrument, find a song that's meaningful to you, work on it, come back the next Thursday, and we'll work on it together."