Guitars for Vets a lifeline for Sonoma County veterans

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How to get involved

Visit to learn more about the national program. To contribute locally or arrange to have the musicians play for your group, contact either Christiane Swartz at or Hilary Marckx at

When Army veteran Joe Zizzi was 17, he dreamed of being a rock star, so he bought a $15 Silvertone guitar from Sears. While he never ended up performing before an audience or playing with a group, he continued to pluck at it off and on for more than 50 years.

“A few years ago, I decided it was now or never,” he says. “I got my nerve up to try open mics, but my fingers shook uncontrollably.

“Since becoming involved with Guitars for Vets and meeting my teacher and mentor Hilary Marckx, I’ve been inspired to pick up the pace in terms of practice and learning technique.”

Founded in 2007, Guitars for Vets provides 10  free lessons and a new acoustic guitar to military veterans at VA medical and community-based vet centers who are struggling with physical injuries, PTSD and other emotional distress. There is never any cost to participate.

Currently there are 80 chapters in 40 states. Ten of the chapters are in California, including the one in Santa Rosa that is coordinated by 49-year old Christiane Swartz, a clinical social worker with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Swartz, who is also a 12-year veteran of the Army Reserves, experienced firsthand the therapeutic value of learning to play a guitar in 2012 when a dear friend and colleague was killed in a tragic accident.

She says she fell apart and was barely able to function. She tried everything to make herself snap out of it, including counseling, but nothing helped until she began teaching herself to play the guitar.

“It quite literally saved my life,” she says. “Not only did it give me a way to ground myself without someone else’s help, I found it impossible to play guitar, even really badly, and feel bad at the same time.”

After experiencing the significant impact learning to play guitar had on her own life, Swartz wondered if it would do the same for the veterans she worked with, especially those who had experienced trauma but could not talk about it at all.

An online search led her to Guitars for Vets. Their website indicates more soldiers have taken their own lives since the Vietnam War than have died in actual battle, with 22 veterans killing themselves every day.

With encouragement from her husband, Army veteran Christopher Swartz, she started the Santa Rosa chapter in 2015, along with VA colleague David Clancy, the new group’s first instructor.

Another VA colleague, Kevin Foley, is also a volunteer instructor, as is veteran Craig Matsuda, who has been instrumental in garnering community support for the program.

Marckx, known as the rockabilly pastor of the Geyserville Christian Church, has taught and graduated a number of students, many of whom had great challenges in learning to play. He has participated regularly in the weekly jams since 2016 and recently became the co-coordinator of the Santa Rosa chapter.

It took Stephen Lewis almost a year to show up after first learning about the program. Despite having owned a guitar for 30 years, the 51-year-old Army Reservist credits the program with giving him the courage he needed to finally be able to play in front of people.

How to get involved

Visit to learn more about the national program. To contribute locally or arrange to have the musicians play for your group, contact either Christiane Swartz at or Hilary Marckx at

“I have been isolating myself and not wanting to be part of anything,” he says. “This group of people welcomed me in to play music and I started wanting to be with them. Over time, I’ve made some really great friends, with music as the connection. The future looks better to me now than it did just over a year ago.”

While the program is run out of the VA clinic and is open to any veteran enrolled for health care, only the Monday sessions at the clinic are restricted to veterans only. The Wednesday afternoon jam sessions at the Palms Inn on Santa Rosa Avenue are open to any musician in the community who would like to play.

The Palms is a converted motel that provides permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless veterans and civilians. Services are jointly provided by Catholic Charities and the Veterans Administration.

Practice guitars and accessories are acquired through community donations, with the greatest ongoing needs being strings, tuners and soft-sided gig bags. Donations to the national chapter are used to support all the chapters, as well as to purchase the new guitars and gig bags for each of the graduates.

Swartz says the group is practicing for a performance later this month for the Geyserville Kiwanis Club, one of their biggest supporters. About five or six of the musicians perform for the club twice a year.

Frank Blount is looking forward to performing on stage again. The 69-year old Army veteran believes the music adds a creative element to the bond the group already has because of their past military service.

“I enjoy playing for the Kiwanis because of the camaraderie and the success of completing the performance after so much work, not to mention the uplifting feeling, the gratification the audience gives us.”

The Santa Rosa program currently has three students and about 10 musicians who participate regularly in the jams. Between six and 10 students graduate each year.

Patrick Hafner, 59, is their latest success story, having completed all 10 lessons and graduating in late September. The Air Force veteran says he was uncertain about getting involved at first, but once he got started, he was hooked.

For Hafner, the impact of this program has been life changing.

“It gave me back a sense of accomplishment, success and belonging to something that matters,” he said. “With so many veteran suicides per day nationwide, any program that can provide this kind of inspiration is invaluable.”

Swartz says the instructors have worked magic, not only in teaching guitar but also in meeting students where they are and in the caring and encouragement they share. She has many wonderful stories.

“I’ve seen veterans who literally could not connect with anyone, who struggled to finish what they start, show up like clockwork every single week for their instructor and graduate the program. I have personally seen some who have gotten sober during this time and still others who have gotten off the streets.

“One veteran we lost to cancer two years ago was an amazing guitar player. All he wanted in his life was to perform again. He was able to perform with us, literally, three days before he lost his hearing and vision and went to the hospital for what would be the last time.

“We had a student with severe PTSD and a traumatic brain injury who began by just being able to play guitar lead in pieces of songs. He had a difficult time focusing and trusting enough to even to complete a conversation. After 10 weeks, he graduated and was able to sing a song he wrote and play all of the chords from the very beginning to the very end.”

The only rule Swartz had when starting the program was that it had to be a safe place to play, whether the playing was good or whether it was not so good. It had to be safe for musicians to come with whatever illness, loss, grief, disability or trouble they lived with on a daily basis.

“In a group in which I promised they’d never have to talk, they talk. They love each other. They belong. They invite others to belong. When they’re not looking, sometimes the love and connectedness in the room makes me cry. We are family,” she concluded.

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