Arming veterans with guitars, local musicians command pilot program

A lifelong musician, Oklahoma City native Butch Johnson knows more than most how deeply music can affect the mind and body.


“Music is good for your heart and for your soul,” he said. “It’s the universal language.”

Johnson first picked up the guitar at the age of 12, when his older brother started teaching him the fundamentals. But recently, the music Johnson grew up loving is now changing his life in the unlikeliest of ways.

“I’m a Vietnam combat vet. I served with the 11th Armored Cavalry in Vietnam. They had the draft back then, and I wound up in the service,” he said.

Upon his return, Johnson attended Oscar Rose Junior College (now Rose State College) for a semester, majoring in music, but he promptly quit, calling the academic method a bust.

“First semester wasn’t anything but music theory,” he said. “I wasn’t interested in how many times a guitar string has to buzz to make an ‘A.’ I just wanted to play, so I just went out and got my start.”

What followed was a 10-year career in music, but had one bumped into the 59-year-old Johnson just a few years ago, he might not have been recognizable. Johnson is a 100 percent disabled veteran who completed the Veterans’ Affairs treatment program for post-traumatic stress disorder in 2005.

“My stress had gotten so bad, I didn’t want to play anymore,” he said. “I took intensive therapy every week for two-and-a-half years.”

He credits his therapist, Dona Zanotti, with helping rekindle his love of music, which in turn, has helped several other metro veterans cope with their PTSD.

Last year, Zanotti received a $4,000 federal grant to pilot a music-therapy program at the Oklahoma City VA Medical Center, 921 N.E. 13th. With little experience in music, Zanotti, who holds a doctorate, turned to Johnson for advice, although the musician is quick to emphasize that the foundation of the program was solely the result of his therapist’s work.

“It’s her program,” he said. “I just helped her because I knew from working with bands what equipment to get. With that $4,000, we bought three guitars, a bass and a bass amp.”

The program, the Oklahoma City VA PTSD Music Lab, offers guitar lessons to veterans who have completed the center’s treatment program. Each week, 10 to 15 participants meet to learn and trade riffs with Johnson.

“I didn’t plan on teaching, but the guy who originally taught had some heart trouble and couldn’t teach anymore, so I stepped in,” he said. His friend Lonnie Sigman of local blues-rock outfit The Lonzo Dog Band also stepped in to help.

“He takes off work for two hours every Monday to come teach,” Johnson said. “He’s a big part of that class; he gives me support, takes some of the pressure off of me. We do a lot of one-on-one, and when there are 15 guys in there, that’s hard to do by yourself.

“It’s given me a challenge musically, and I love teaching these guys. They’re so easy to work with. I’ve even got one guy that comes to my house every now and then on a Saturday.”

Johnson expects the program to grow in the months to come, although he is concerned about its limited resources. While there are some instruments available for students, many veterans in the class have purchased their own equipment to use. Like any budding art program, Johnson said the lab always needs donations.

“We’ve got one guy who’s left-handed. When we ordered guitars, we didn’t get a left-handed one. He comes down every week, bless his heart, and tries to play right-handed,” he said.

The classes are structured diplomatically: Students choose songs they want to learn, and Johnson and Sigman use sheet music and CDs to figure out the parts and, in turn, teach the songs to the class. Although the atmosphere is light, Johnson reiterated the importance of the program’s purpose.

“Our guys picked out a theme song for the class; it’s about forgiveness,” he said. “That’s a big thing with PTSD: what you did in a war. You kill people; you never forget it. You see people get killed; you never forget it. Guys like me get so filled up with guilt over it that they have to have therapy. It’s even happening to these kids coming home now.”

Johnson said that current classes are largely filled with Vietnam veterans.

“You have to go through the PTSD program to be in the class, and a lot of them (recent veterans) haven’t done that yet, so that’s why we’re not seeing them,” he said, “and the younger guys are used to a newer kind of music, a whole different style: that head-banging stuff. I’m 59 years old. I was raised on The Beatles. There’s a bit of a generational gap, but they’re welcome.”

Johnson said even Zanotti has trimmed her nails and picked up a guitar, underlining the positive effect the program is having on all involved.

“They show progress every week, and they’re more interested every week, and that’s what makes me the happiest,” he said. “It’s part of their therapy and part of mine, too.” “Becky Carman

Becky Carman

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