Veterans With PTSD Use Music Therapy To Heal -- And Get Back To Work

music therapy ptsd

A decade ago, former Army Sgt. Leo Dunson was a good-natured 18-year-old eager to serve his country and make a difference after the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Serving in Iraq, Dunson soon found it difficult to sleep, worried that he might wake up in an insurgent's makeshift torture chamber.

And there were other signs that the war was taking its toll. Once, he pressed a gun to an enemy's mouth; another time, he says, he joined fellow soldiers in taunting an Iraqi boy. Dunson (pictured above) also tried to kill himself, but was saved after the gun he put to his head failed to fire. "If I had died over there, I would have got a 21-gun salute, everybody would praise me like a king," he told The Associated Press. "What do I get now?"

Like many who have returned from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dunson, discharged from the Army in 2008, says that he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, a signature ailment of both conflicts, which has hampered many veterans from reintegrating into society.

PTSD is so common, in fact, that the Institute of Medicine recommended in July that troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan be screened for the condition at least once year and called for the federal government to investigate the effectiveness of existing treatments.

In the meantime, some veterans are finding relief from PTSD symptoms through music. They include Dunson, who turned to rap as a way to express his disappointments and build a new life. Music, he told the AP, is keeping him alive. Diagnosed by the military with PTSD, the Nevada-resident says that he has refused counseling or treatment at the local VA hospital.

More: Confessions Of A VA Nurse: Mending More Crushed Spirits Than Broken Bones

The divorced father of a daughter has made five albums in the past four years, the lyrics of which include violent images and words to describe his wartime service.

"I'm back and forth in my head and I don't know what's wrong," he raps in "PTSD." "At nights I shake. I feel like a stranger is in my home. Me and my wife can't get along."

In putting his words to music, Dunson hopes to helps other veterans confront their PTSD, even as he struggles with it himself.

Across the country, government doctors in several states, including Wisconsin, California and New Jersey, have begun experimental music therapy programs that rely on different, more soothing styles of music -- classical and acoustic -- to help veterans heal.

At a Veteran Affairs clinic in southern New Jersey, Dr. Mary Rorro frequently plays the viola during outpatient therapy sessions as a way to help Vietnam veterans open up and talk about their war experiences. Known as the "Violin Doc," Rorro, a psychiatrist, knows the symptoms of PTSD among veterans all too well.

"They suffer from recurrent intrusive memories," Rorro told public-radio station WNYC during a recent interview. Combat veterans' nightmares can be very vivid and real, disrupting sleep and result in night sweats, she said. "Some of them even now feel like they could be back in Vietnam, even though they know that they're back in safe country."

More: Top Employers Of Veterans

Research suggests that alternative therapies, such as the use of music, can help veterans to talk about the disturbing memories they have by reducing the amount of anxiety related to such thoughts.

"At times, music can serve as a springboard during discussion," Rorro said, though not everyone responds to the same type of music.

During a recent therapy session with 15 veterans, Rorro got a request for "anything by The Dead." But music with spoken words or lyrics often agitates PTSD patients. Instead, she played "Amazing Grace," "Anchors Away," and "Memory" from the musical, "Cats."

One of the patients, 62-year-old Charles Browne, said the music took him back to his youth. "Music has always been a respite for me," said Browne, who was drafted into the Army at age 20 and earned a Purple Heart for his service as an infantryman.

When Browne returned to civilian life, he suffered from anxiety that caused him to withdraw into himself. Four years ago, he started going to the VA clinic and began feeling better and sleeping longer at night.

Before he began therapy, Browne slept as little as an hour a night, but now typically sleeps five with the help of music played at bedtime, a suggestion Rorro gave him. "[T]o me there's nothing better than music," he told WNYC. "It's very important to me. It brings back good memories to me."

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As a former victim of domestic abuse, I can say that music was not only soothing and strengthening to me but also kept me from completely losing my "sense of self" from the the mind games and psychological abuse I endured. Music definately helped me to maintain my sanity during the worst of those times.

March 29 2013 at 1:48 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I suggested to a group of veterans' spouses that they start a book club and read books that are completely different from the kinds of things encountered during war time. Books are better than TV or movies, because they completely engage the imagination and force it to work. It is difficult to read a book and imagine a scene taking place and thinking bad thoughts about war at the same time. PTSD is like your brain being a record or CD that gets stuck playing the same bad part over and over. To get over PTSD, you need to learn how to get past that scratch and put as many experiences and thoughts between the bad past and the good future via the best present you can compel yourself to embrace every minute of everyday. Eventually, the scratch will be less important than where you are enough for it to stop getting priority play.

March 28 2013 at 3:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I know a method better than that. DON'T GO TO WAR!

March 28 2013 at 2:39 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I don't claim to know the psychology behind it, but when I am down or scared(and yes, I have PTSD) singing helps. Loudly, with some dancing..even better with my kids, I feel better. I've always known music changes you. A good day and I'm singing John Prine....want to cry...listen to Bread.

March 28 2013 at 10:12 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Gillian McKeever

This is really concerning. Listening to music can be therapeutic, but that doesn't make it music therapy. Music therapy is an established public health profession in which a BOARD CERTIFIED professional music therapist uses and manipulates music within a clinical therapeutic setting for the purpose of healing, be it physical, psychological, cognitive, or emotional. The psychiatrist mentioned in this article...does she have a degree in music therapy? Does she have board certification in music therapy? Being a psychiatrist who plays the violin does not make her a music therapist. Just like with any other profession, music therapist receive very specialized and specific training that qualifies them to do what they do. A psychiatrist is no more qualified to practice music therapy than a music therapist is to practice psychiatry. There is a reason for the specific credentials: If you don't know what you're doing, you can cause more harm than good.

January 26 2013 at 6:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sgt Dunson definitely hits close to home with the words he speaks. His music helped me understand my own struggles and since I found it I haven't really listened to much of anything else. This music has meaning, explains a story, explains life after war, I'll take this over any of the stuff called "music" I've heard over the last few years...

Tim, it's not going to heal you, you won't suddenly be 100% by listening to his songs or music in general. It's a coping mechanism to know others are living and breathing the fear and psychological issues you are facing as well and by knowing others can step up out the funk, it gives you hope that you too can get past it. While not "healed" you feel not alone.

October 10 2012 at 7:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Sgt Dunson definitely hits close to home with the words he speaks. His music helped me understand my own struggles and since I found it I haven't really listened to much of anything else. This music has meaning, explains a story, explains life after war, I'll take this over any of the stuff called "music" I've heard over the last few years...

October 10 2012 at 7:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Sgt Dunson


October 10 2012 at 4:57 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Tom Slick

OMG..WHAT...IDIOT came up with,s BS..! YOU can not erase these memories...NOTHING can!!!,s like ..who hasnt heard about the KILLER who found GOD in Prison and was Paroled..ONLY to KILL again...anyone OWN a PET RATTLESNAKE...?..of course not! NOW..some IDIOT will pass a BILl that ALL COMBAT Veterans become Singers..Disc Jokies...Dancers..HOW STUPID! ONE lears to LIVE with this..hoping it is NEVER a PET KILLS YOU...what a a Decorated Combat Marine..100% Disabled..I say..this guy is a LIAR..he will explode...someday..wait and see..ha ha ha ha ...MUSIC....thats as FUNNY as the word...OBAMA...ha ha ha ha ahhhhhh

October 09 2012 at 4:05 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Tom Slick's comment
Juanima Hiatt

Tom, I don't think they're saying music is a cure, but it can help reduce anxiety symptoms. I have found this to be true with my PTSD.

October 10 2012 at 11:17 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

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