Playing For Keeps

Guitars for Vets connects people through music

By Jessica Laskey
January 2022

If you are interested in music and making new friends, James Broderick has a perfect opportunity.

Broderick is volunteer coordinator for the Sacramento chapter of Guitars for Vets, a national nonprofit that provides free guitar instruction to struggling veterans.

“The vets we serve have been referred to us by counselors and therapists at the VA and lessons are held at VA facilities,” Broderick says. “Few of the vets we teach have any musical experience. For the most part, we’re talking raw beginners.

“Our goal for 2022 is to expand our volunteer corps dramatically and unleash an army of guitar players upon the world.”

A guitar player since high school, Broderick read about Guitars for Vets in Inside Sacramento and immediately got involved. “It’s like an annuity,” he says. “You put all this energy into it, it’s time to start getting some energy out.”

The Marin County native, McGeorge School of Law alum and former Sacramento News & Review account executive was acquainted with veterans through his insurance business, which serves first responders.

Broderick says many clients suffer from PTSD. Playing a musical instrument can help. “You know that space you go to when you’re playing?” he says. “That’s where I want to bring these people.”

After two years with Guitars for Vets, Broderick became the volunteer coordinator and now oversees a team of five that he hopes to expand, particularly in East Sacramento, where Broderick has lived with his family for decades.

“I see a future where 15 guitar players from East Sac join me in reaching vets,” he says. “Not only would those players be supporting true heroes, they’ll advance their own playing. And they’ll meet one another helping their fellow Americans.”

Volunteers are not required to be expert musicians. Lessons are “more in the realm of companionship as much as musicality—we’re not concerned with how great a guitarist you are, we’re more concerned with how great a person you are,” Broderick says. Volunteers meet face-to-face with a veteran once a week for 10 weeks, after which the veteran is given a guitar.

“After having tragically lost my guitar in a prior incident, having a lended guitar to play made me feel comforted and trusted again,” says John Williams, a recent graduate.

For Army veteran Raymond Ledesma, lessons were a “good reprieve” after losing his wife. “I’m working on Johnny Lee’s ‘Looking for Love’ so I can get on the stage and play with him one day,” says Ledesma, who ran a bar in Branson, Missouri, that was frequented by the likes of Lee, Glen Campbell and Andy Williams.

For Air Force veteran Donald Sneed, the experience was “very surreal for someone who’d never picked up a guitar a day in his life,” but it relieved stress from his PTSD. “It’s good to have a commitment to go to, to get me out of the house. It can be tough to get to the sessions but it’s worth it once you’re there. It’s more than just playing the guitar.”

“The lessons benefit both parties,” Broderick says. “It’s very emotionally impactful. There’s a lot of bad news around and a lot of red and blue America, so you don’t have that many opportunities to really share moments with one another. Politics don’t matter in music. All of us know Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash. It feels great to leave the posturing outside and sit in with a fellow American for a common purpose. It’s a really powerful thing to do.”

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