Guardian Encore gives vets a chance to open up through music

Guardian Encore gives vets a chance to open up through music

Brian Freeman served in the Army from 2002-2015, and early on, he lost a few friends in combat. PTSD emerged in the form of anxiety and depression, and trudging on nonetheless, he became a paratrooper in his 40s. Unfortunately, the soldier hurt his back, and became medically separated. Of course, Freeman’s mental health struggles didn’t go away, so he simply fell back on his military training. “If I can learn it, I can fix it,” said Freeman of the mindset, and the veteran earned a Bachelors (2018) and Masters (2019) in Social Work from Fordham.

Luckily, Freeman came to realize the necessity of talk therapy. But giving up control has taken another form, and the manner he stays fine tuned reinforces all his efforts to sustain a sound mind.

“Music is saving me,” Freeman said, and the venue hails from a program called Guardian Encore.

Under the umbrella of an organization called Guardian Revival, the healing of America’s guardians is the arrangement. “Encore provides veterans and first responders the opportunity to learn, write, play, record, and share music through Jams, Tracks, and Retreats,” according to the website. 

brian recording
Brian recording.

Freeman got connected through an intern at the VA, but the music program was further down the road. He was asked to do assessments for GR’s Boots and Paws program, and his interest peaked, the vet interviewed with director, Alex Othmer.  “We seemed to have a lot in common, one thing led to another and here I am doing what I do,” Freeman, who is the nonprofit’s Director of Human Services, said.

Still, Freeman felt he wasn’t a fit for an encore – literally.  A traumatic childhood, music was an escape, and eventually playing in a number of bands, the creative release came with the seeds of its own destruction. “Part of my musical journey was based around substance abuse,” the Cornwall, NY resident revealed.

Even so, he did get sober, has remained that way for 22 years and joining the Army helped sustain the break. He also completely turned his back on playing, so no one at GR knew of his musical background.  “I was very cautious about getting involved in anything musical,” Freeman said.

He feared music could be a trigger back into substance abuse, but loose lips did not sink this ship. Members found out, and even though he still paused, Freeman was asked to play a few songs at a party. “That gave me a spiritual awakening. So here I was sober and playing music in front of people,” he said. “I hadn’t played in decades, and I liked it.”

brian, dave, and alex guardian encore
Brian, Dave and Alex.

Encore was then unavoidable, and the reluctance he had long displayed actually made him a better fit. The guitarist says that performing requires vulnerability, because the artist has to be open to criticism and must face the fear of rejection.

So the gathering immediately addresses the issue. “We shoot down the expectations,” he conveyed. “If you can just listen to music, you can be part of the group.”

The exposure lessened, the musical flow elevates, puts fear in the background and sets the stage for the real process. “When we get to those vulnerabilities, we can have conversations about anything,” he said. “Because if you’re comfortable enough to come in through music – the catalyst,” he said, “we can talk.”

In accordance, members might play for 30 minutes and end up talking for 90. The day to day grind, problems from their past or triggers, the setting is like a demilitarized zone. “They come in and know we’re going to create a safe space,” Freeman asserted.

Validated, the group can expand their comfort zone with people who are taking the same language, and every Tuesday the members know that the jam doesn’t really concern itself with hitting the high notes. “It’s not about sitting around and playing music,” the LMSW said. “It’s about sitting around and just being with each other.”

On the other hand, he assures the process is not a substitute for talk therapy.

Instead, from his experience, the Encore engagement acts as a facilitator. “A good way to work through my stuff is not so much focusing on the future or the past but working on the present and music brings me to that spot,” he revealed.

At the same time, Encore pays heed to the past in service of the present. “In the military or as a first responder, you were on the job. You woke up, and you had something to do every day,” Freeman said. “You had a mission, and I think that’s one of the big things you miss when you get out.”

This is where the Tracks program comes in. Members can bring in a song, enter the studio and record.  “We mix ‘em down pretty well,” Freeman said.

The program doesn’t stop there either. The songs then go on Spotify, the artist belongs to a record label and uploads mean income. “It gives them something concrete to do and gives them a sense of purpose, a sense of confidence and all those things,” he boasted.

But from beginners to long time members, the core principle remains, and he revels in it. “If I’m having a bad day or having a bad memory, I can bring it up and talk to these guys,” Freeman concluded.

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