At its core, the American Patriot Music Project is about veterans helping other veterans.
There is music, but, more importantly, there is companionship and acceptance, a fellowship forged along with guitars and chords. Among that fellowship, veterans can talk about the wounds of the past and begin the road to healing.
“We don’t have to be so focused on the trauma,” said Tony “T-Bone” Villegas. “We can do something else. Music helps time pass without having to think about it.”
Tony, the Project’s Executive Director, is a U.S. Army and California National Guard veteran. In the National Guard, he served two years as an assistant chaplain and an acting chaplain. He became used to his fellow guardsmen approaching him quietly, in out-of-the-way places and sometimes late at night.
“I’d look up, one of them would say, ‘can I talk to you?’ and I knew they were about to open up,” Tony said.
Tony’s experience in being present for another veteran would serve him well as the Executive Director of the American Patriot Music Project. Amidst the flurry of fundraising, organizing, presenting and performing, he still is frequently called to simply be present for another veteran who needs someone to listen.
He also is a member of the American Patriot Band, which serves not only as a centerpiece for fundraising, but as a jam group for veterans who want the experience of being on stage or simply to play with a group. The group has even gone on tour to support a veteran’s upcoming album.
The music project, created by Darrin Isham, a retired SEAL, originally was a chapter of the Phoenix Patriot Foundation, which focused on post-9/11 veterans who had seen combat or were injured. As a combat veteran himself, Isham knew the pressing need to address Traumatic Brain Injuries (TBI) and Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS).
As time went on, the foundation perceived the need to expand their services to veterans who hadn’t been directly involved in combat, as they also could suffer from injury and PTS. Eventually, the work of the music project became so successful it became its own non-profit organization, extending services to veterans of all eras.
“Many [older] veterans, you just came home and dealt with it [PTS],” Tony said. “There were no services.”
In addition to their performances, the music project provides grants for musical instruments and music therapy programs and leads guitar-building workshops and veterans meetings.
“We’ve had veterans jam with us,” Tony said of the American Patriot Band. “At Camp Pendleton, there was a musician who just wanted to play with a live band. He was a great musician, he’d just never played with anyone before.”
The music project has provided a guitar to a veteran who had mastered the ukulele as part of his music therapy and was looking to explore another string instrument. Another veteran suffering from TBI needed a bass amplifier, so the music project provided one.
“I just shipped a drum kit yesterday,” Tony said.
Yet another veteran had lost his legs and part of his fingers to an Improvised Explosive Device and couldn’t play guitar, so music project volunteers provided a violin and keyboard. Later, he spoke at a performance of the American Patriot Band.
“Just watching him climb those steps to the stage was powerful,” Tony said. “To see the results, that he could come and speak about his experience in a public space.”
The music project received a $4,000 grant to purchase more instruments for veterans when Temecula Mayor Pro Tem James “Stew” Stewart designated the organization as the recipient of the Heroes in My City Sweepstakes prize. The sweepstakes was held by Utility Service Partners, a HomeServe company, in conjunction with the announcement of the company’s new Veteran’s Recruitment Initiative at November’s NLC City Summit.
“Thank you,” Tony said. “We’re very appreciative.”
The music project doesn’t only provide musical instruments, but support of many types. Brad Fite, who wrote “Life After Death: A Survivor’s Story” about his injuries from a roadside bomb, his subsequent PTS and suicide attempts, also benefited from the music project, which supported his recording an album.
The music project has recently launched an all-women’s group to provide women veterans with a peer group in which they can feel comfortable and understands the unique challenges of being a woman in the military. In particular, women are more vulnerable to Military Sexual Trauma (MST).
“They have a higher suicide rate if they’ve experienced MST,” Tony said of the risks. “We want our sisters to know we are there for them.”
Through a partnership with Sinclair College and its STEM Guitar Project, led by Tom Singer, Mechanical Engineering Technology professor, the music project has hosted several guitar-building workshops. The workshops take participants through each step of building a guitar, from cutting the body through wiring it for sound.
“The best compliment I ever received was a veteran [at a workshop] who said, ‘I didn’t think of anything else but this guitar for the last four days,’” Tony said. “That’s what we want, to show them that they can think of things other than the nightmare in their heads.”
Another veteran was concerned that he might not be able to endure the noise of the power tools, since his service had left him with PST and an extreme sensitivity to loud noise. Tony assured him that he would work with him during the workshop. By the second day, the veteran was helping others with their projects, despite his worries.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Tony said. “Vets helping vets.”