BENNITO L. KELTY Mar 24, 2017
COLUMBIA — In the middle of a circle of veterans, Dave Dunklee slowly pronounced the vowels of “Mississippi." With each vowel, he strummed the guitar, creating a rhythm for the beginners in the room.
The 14 veterans around him started following his lead carefully. Once they were all in sync, they all started playing "Johnny B. Goode," in honor of Chuck Berry, and smiles grew on every face.
One ear-to-ear grin belonged to Barry Jordan, a noncombat veteran diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Before the music lesson, Jordan cried while talking about his struggle to readjust to civilian life.
“We’re all stuck in a prison, everywhere we go, that has invisible bars,” Jordan said, wiping his eyes. “Well, I’m trading in invisible bars for old guitars.”
And then he chuckled at his rhyme.
These veterans, many of them wounded or diagnosed with PTSD, receive help from The Healing Box Project, a program that teaches veterans how to play guitar.
Dunklee and his wife, CJ, from Gravois Mill, started the program in 2012 after watching a television commercial featuring Toby Keith, a country musician and guitarist, for the Wounded Warrior Project.
They were bothered by the load of paperwork involved with joining the national project and decided they would be a better help if they took their own initiative.
"We want to do it for the veterans as a way of saying we got their back," Dunklee said. "The same way they got ours."
With Dunklee's background in teaching music, the couple decided they could help by teaching veterans how to play guitar. They took a few guitars with them to a Warriors Transition Unit at Fort Leonard Wood at Lake of the Ozarks in 2012 and, with their own money, started The Healing Box Project.
"The guitar is the box," Dunklee said, explaining how they came up with the name. "The healing begins with the first strum."
Three years later, the transition unit was shut down, but the Dunklees were still determined.
A peer support specialist from Columbia, Chris Longdon, heard about the Dunklees' project from a mutual friend. Longdon, who was already trying to start a program at Truman Memorial Veterans' Hospital, texted the Dunklees to ask if they were interested in continuing their program in Columbia.
The program started here, CJ said, “without missing a beat.”
Dave Dunklee said that the new class was receptive to the project. The class, which had 15 students, quickly grew to 30.
The Dunklees now teach three classes, each with about 15 students, every Tuesday.
The Healing Box Project, which has been going on for five years now, has been operating at Truman Memorial Veterans' Hospital in Columbia since December 2015.
The project starts veterans with cheaper guitars then gives them a brand-name guitar, such as Washburn, Gibson or Alvarez. They also provide a hard-cover case. The Dunklees said that they have given away 88 guitars to veterans so far.
Dunklee has two music degrees from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas, and MU and has taught music in Arlington, Virginia, public schools.
The money needed to keep the project going is raised through fundraisers organized by CJ. She takes donations but mostly funds the project by selling donated items.
At silent auctions, she has sold tickets to Royals games donated by the team and guitars autographed by musicians and bands such as Van Halen, The Guess Who and Charlie Daniels.
Dunklee, a blues and classic rock musician, preforms at concerts to raise money for the project. He has more than 60 gigs lined up from June to August.
Dunklee takes an hour with each class and goes at a slow pace. Many of the veterans are beginners and are still getting getting used to playing an instrument.
During Tuesday's class, while playing one note, Ken Koetzle, a Vietnam veteran, used his middle finger to hold down a string, which wasn't right. Sitting next to Koetzle, Dunklee told him to use his index finger.
Do it that way, Dunklee said, so you can do this — he then moved his three other fingers in a crazy pattern to complete the riff for "Johnny B. Goode."
“You’re gonna do that right?” Dunklee asked Koetzle.
“Yeah, I’m gonna do that," Koetzle said, laughing along with all the other veterans.
Koetzle — who served 18 months on a U.S. Navy Seabee, a unit that built hospitals during Vietnam — has trouble describing his time in the war. He said when he came back people called him a "baby killer."
Even though Koetzle is challenged by learning the guitar, he said it takes his mind off of bad memories.
"It gives you something else to think about," he said.
Koetzle described the feeling associated with learning the guitar as "a good kind of frustration."
Steven Everingham shared a similar experience with Koetzle after returning from five years of service in Vietnam with the U.S. Army. After he returned in 1970, he said he was "treated crappy" and given "no respect."
While Dunklee played through "Johnny B. Goode" again, Everingham sang along to the lyrics with his eyes focused on the sheet music.
"As soon as I get here, I'm happy," he said. "I'm coming back to a sense of camaraderie."
At one point in the lesson, Robert Jackson made a fist then stretched his fingers out.
He served in the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said. Jackson returned in 2009 with injuries to his legs. He was also diagnosed with PTSD.
He heard about the project from his psychiatrist. Jackson, a fan of Hank Williams, decided he'd like the opportunity to learn guitar. Now in his seventh lesson, Jackson has grown attached to the project.
“The feeling is hard to describe, but it’s definitely a happy feeling," he said, "and it comes from being in a room with other vets who are sharing the feeling."
“I’m thankful for this,” Jackson said, holding an Esteban guitar close to his chest. “It does me a lot of good.”
Article originally appeared in the March 24th print edition of the Columbia Missourian. An online version can be found HERE