They once carried guns, heavy artillery and radio equipment.
Now, they carry a tune.
Coming home from horrific combat situations during wars from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, many veterans struggle with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), loneliness, alcohol and drug addictions and unemployment.
But, for those in the Rock For Vets band, the minute they get up on stage, all those troubles seem to disappear.
“I get up there for a couple hours at practice, and I’m able to just let all that stuff go,” said James Elliott, 48, who joined the United States Army in 1986 as a Ranger in the Airborne Infantry.
After serving in the U.S. invasion of Panama during Operation Just Cause up until 1990 and then in Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm, Elliott had battled with PTSD and drug addiction for years. But now, he has discovered a passion as a bassist, guitarist and backup vocalist for the band that Elliott said has given veterans a new avenue for self-expression and builds camaraderie among its members.
“It’s really helpful to be around other veterans, who understand what PTSD is, so, that way, you don’t have to go through it alone,” he said.
Frank McIlquham, a Signal Hill resident and retired banker, formed Rock For Vets, also known as The Rock Club, as a small choir group with its first gig in May 2010 at California State University, Long Beach, hoping to raise funds for musical equipment as an independent nonprofit.
Now with 25 to 30 band members, including music coaches and McIlquham’s partnering director, Jerry Salas, the music instructional and educational program has grown its ranks over the years and today partners with the Veterans Affairs (VA) Hospital in Long Beach.
The Veterans Health Administration currently works with the group to have professional psychologists prescribe the group as music-therapy rehabilitation for returning veterans, while allowing the band to rehearse twice a week at the Pantages Theater inside the VA Hospital.
Though not a veteran himself, McIlquham said he comes from a long line of military service and wanted to do his part to give back to the men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. The program is a prime example of music-therapy rehabilitation, a growing field in the mental-health community. However, McIlquham said he wants to push the “music-education” angle of the program to promote music learning, adding that the program provides much more than just an “individual experience.”
“This program has now allowed veterans to open up and communicate with each other and have a sense of self-worth and self-confidence again,” he said. “It’s probably something they haven’t had in a little while.”
Cristine Calderon, 32, who sings in the band, served with the U.S. Army in the information technology field right out of high school in 1999 and was released from duty through a medical discharge just a year after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
The Whittier resident learned about the band through a flier she saw in the VA Hospital’s vocational-rehabilitation program. Calderon said that, since then, being able to sing in the band and learn how to play the bass has helped family relationships and improved her self-esteem.
“I wasn’t fully functioning,” she said. “I was just battling with depression and anxiety. And then the group helped me get a better sense of self-worth and a positive attitude to have a brighter outlook. Ultimately, it’s like an extended family. The people in my group, I consider them like brothers and sisters.”
Calderon said she is now looking into becoming a musical therapist and is taking classes at Cypress College. She added that the band has even dissuaded some veterans from committing suicide.
Charlie Roche, 65, who joined the Navy out of high school and served until 1971 for six years, including a stint in the Vietnam War, said the group has allowed him to reconnect with his musical roots. He once played in a Vietnamese band in a ramshackle club made of bamboo in the late 1960s while serving in Vietnam, in addition to bands in the United States.
Struggling with depression and drug addiction, he learned about the band while living at Villages at Cabrillo, a residential alcohol- and drug-abuse treatment center for veterans in Long Beach. Today, Roche, who is a father and works as a security guard, said he has been sober for 13 years and volunteers as a musical coach for the band.
“When we’re out there, the feeling on stage… it’s like a current of energy,” he said. “It’s really great, and it really is therapeutic… I don’t think everybody realizes that you can’t just go from one day you’re completely tense because you don’t know if you’re going to have to kill somebody or they’re going to kill you or come out from behind a wall and shoot you, to the next day you’re on a plane heading for home and you’re done with that duty. All of a sudden, you’re at home thinking, ‘Wow, I still feel tense.’”
The band, however, doesn’t follow the traditional military-regimented song list.
Elliott said the band’s musical arrangement ranges from: the country’s national anthem, “God Bless America,” and “The Star-Spangled Banner” to classic rock of the ‘60s and ‘70s, such as “Brown-Eyed Girl” by Van Morrison, “Come Together” by the Beatles and “Slow Ride” by Foghat, to more modern tunes by bands such as the Foo Fighters.
“It’s a wide array,” he said. “We play these songs that [veterans] can relate to, and then we play something more updated so other audience members can relate. You got to be very well-rounded if you’re going to go out and reach the masses.”
The band has been able to play some large venues as well. Last year, on Nov. 10, the group played at the City of Los Angeles’s First Annual Veterans Appreciation Festival in front of the U.S.S. Iowa, a decommissioned battleship that serves as a museum in San Pedro.
The band was also featured last year in an episode of the A&E reality TV show Gene Simmons Family Jewels in which Simmons, bassist of rock band Kiss, performed onstage with Rock For Vets band members.
This year, Rock For Vets is scheduled to play during Memorial Day and during the second annual Meals on Wheels of Long Beach and Rock For Vets Variety Show Fundraiser on June 29 from noon to 5pm at the Ernest Borgnine Theatre located at the Scottish Rite Theatre, 855 Elm St. in Long Beach.
Proceeds from the variety-show concert will help feed homebound veterans in the Long Beach and Signal Hill area with daily meals from Meals on Wheels, while providing funding for the Rock For Vets operations.
In addition to Rock For Vets, other bands to perform include Freddie Davis Jr., who performed with The Drifters, The Platters and Hank Ballard’s The Midnighters, Long Beach-based Boxcar 7, The Windy Ridge Bluegrass Band and the Pin-up Doll Platoon. The concert will also include a silent auction and gourmet-food trucks. Variety-show tickets cost $25. To purchase tickets, visit mowlb.org .