MILTON — Lawrence Spooner of Milton and Juan Cuellar of Fort Walton Beach, students of the Guitars for Vets program, Santa Rosa chapter received new Yamaha guitars by instructors Cliff Krut and Fred Tate after completing the 10-week course. The ceremony took place at the Imogene Theatre, where students also practiced.

"It has helped me a lot when it comes to mental health," said Cuellar about the program. "I feel my anxiety levels getting up and crazy thoughts - I go in the garage start playing guitar, clear my head. It brings blood pressure down, gets rid of my anxiety. It's just awesome."

Veterans suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have been referred to the program to help them cope with their illness. The program started in 2007 when Milwaukee guitar instructor Patrick Nettesheim met Vietnam-era Marine, Dan Van Buskirk.

For years, Van Buskirk wanted to learn how to play guitar but felt the lasting effects of combat, in the form of PTSD, would make it difficult to succeed. After a few months of working with Nettesheim, Van Buskirk discovered the spirit that helped him throughout his time in Vietnam was all he needed to play music. Together, the men realized that guitar lessons were both opportunities for self-expression and positive human interaction.

According to the Guitar for Vets web site, more soldiers have committed suicide since the Vietnam War than have died in battle. The program says the healing power of music helps soldiers cope. That is why Guitars for Vets provides veterans with guitars and lessons.

Krut, a retired Navy senior chief, got involved with the Pensacola chapter soon after leaving the Navy. He saw a need for a chapter in Santa Rosa County so he started one.

"It all works together," Krut said about the program. The act of learning, practicing, playing, creating and talking to other veterans leads to healing, Krut said. The first step is getting these vets out of the house and talking to other veterans.

The course teaches vets the basics of playing the guitar. Graduates receive a new guitar, strap, guitar stand, picks, tuner, lesson books and a capo — a tool to change the guitar's key. The guitars used during the course go back to the program to be prepared for the next student.

"We get them doing something positive that will stay with them for a lifetime," Krut said.

A benefit concert for Guitars for Vets will take place at 7 p.m. Nov. 3, at Whiskey Runners Saloon in Pensacola. The concert features singer-songwriters performing. There is a Harley Davidson 1200 Sportster raffle at 9:30 p.m. Tickets for the concert are $15; available at A Joyful Noise or at Whiskey Runners.

Visit www.guitars4vets.org for more information on this program.