Gary Hull, Army, vocals, and Steve Ovard, Air Force, guitar.
For seventy years the hospital at the corner of Bellflower Blvd. and Seventh St. in Long Beach has served the men and women who have served our country, and the healing power of music has often figured in prominently there.
Originally called the Long Beach Naval Hospital when it opened its doors a year into World War II, the hilltop facility with the art deco facade (now blocked from view by the massive mid-’60s addition) became the Long Beach Veterans Administration Hospital in the early 1950s. Bob Hope, who entertained American troops for six decades, did many live radio broadcasts with stars like Dean Martin and Phyllis Diller in the hospital’s Lloyd Pantages Theater.
Nowadays in the Pantages, musicians Frank McIlquham and Jerry Salas, founders of the Rock For Vets music therapy and instruction program, continue that spirit of helping soldiers by providing open-door access to musical healing for all Veterans, whether they have any previous musical experience or not.
“I have been a musician all my life and wanted to do my part for our country,” says McIlquham, a drummer originally from Houston whose family has a history of military service. “The best thing I thought I could do was to create a music program for our Vets.”
McIlquham met Salas, a Vietnam veteran, through a mutual friend. The two men discovered a shared interest in establishing a music program for vets in the Los Angeles area. After considerable effort working with the Veterans Administration, they were able to get access to patients and rehearsal space at the Long Beach facility in 2010.
Salas, born and raised in Oxnard, is uniquely qualified for his role as “head coach” of Rock For Vets. A versatile singer and guitarist from a musical family, he found himself gigging on the Sunset Strip in its mid-’60s heyday in a band called The Sticks, who played the same clubs as The Doors, The Byrds,and Buffalo Springfield.
Drafted into the Army in 1971, Jerry drove an armored personnel carrier until he was “discovered” while singing at a party and ended up in the Special Services unit, entertaining troops all over Vietnam. Not long after his return to the States, he was asked to join the L.A. band El Chicano, and he sang lead on their big 1973 hit “Tell Her She’s Lovely.”
“This program has done far more than I could have imagined,” says Salas. “The positive stories I’ve been told by our vets and their families and friends are just amazing.” Vocalist and U.S. Army vet Cristina Calderon is just one of the many soldiers who give testimony to the value of Rock For Vets: “Before this program, I was barely alive,” she says.
“War is hell, and you never come back whole,” reaffirms Rock For Vets bassist James Elliott, a graduate of Gahr High School in Cerritos who did long-range reconnaissance for the Army in Panama and Saudi Arabia in the early ’90s. Many of Elliott’s comrades in Rock For Vets have lived through combat situations too nightmarish to describe. Others, though, have been traumatized by events that took place on our own shores; Physical and mental abuse at the hands of overzealous superior officers and instructors. Almost all of the musicians in Rock For Vets suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“I was grinding my teeth, getting agitated in traffic—classic PTSD symptoms,” says Rock For Vets band member Woody Rodelo, whose first trip away from his home in Whittier was to Vietnam with a Marine Corps supply unit, hauling truckloads of body bags. “After I joined Rock For Vets, those symptoms went away,” says Rodelo. “The music is the medicine. It sure worked for me.”
Charles Roche, Navy, guitars, and Roger Revels, Marines, vocals.
Many of the members of Rock For Vets never sang or played an instrument before joining, but several bring years of musical experience to the program. Drummer Leif Meisinger, a Seal Beach native who served with the Army infantry in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, tour-managed national concert acts at the Lollapalooza level during the ’90s. Charles Roche, a guitarist since age seven, honed his chops while playing surf music with the locals of Qui-Nhon, Vietnam in 1966. “We were a Navy patrol boat unit, stationed on an island,” says Roche. “I’d take a water taxi across the inlet to Qui-Nhon, and we’d play for hours. Ventures, Duane Eddy…They knew ’em all.”
This past year, KISS bassist Gene Simmons joined forces with Rock For Vets in a benefit concert at the Roxy on Sunset Boulevard. Simmons and his wife Shannon Tweed spent time with the vets in Long Beach as well. The entire experience was filmed for Simmons’ reality TV show Family Jewels, and the episode—”Kiss A Vet”—aired this July. For Jerry Salas, it was quite a sentimental journey back to the Sunset Strip. “To see the Vets playing and singing with someone like Gene Simmons….that’s my therapy,” he says.
Rock For Vets has two big local shows coming up. They’ve partnered with Meals On Wheels to present the First Annual “Help Feed A Veteran” variety show at the Scottish Rite Ernest Borgnine Theater in Long Beach this Saturday afternoon. Proceeds from the event, which includes an auction, a barbeque and an assortment of musical performers including the Rock For Vets band, will be used to provide food for Vets in Long Beach and Signal Hill. For more information, please visit mowlb.org or therockclub.net.
On November 10, the Rock For Vets band will be performing at the First Annual Veterans Appreciation Festival in the Port of Los Angeles, with the USS Iowa as a backdrop. More info about this free event can be found at portoflosangeles.org.
Rock For Vets is not funded by the VA and relies solely on donations of funds and musical equipment from individuals and corporations. If you would like to help the program, please send an email to [email protected] or send a donation to TRC MUSIC THERAPY PROGRAM, PO BOX 90461, LONG BEACH CA 90809.
—Middle Photo: Janette H. Williams, Air Force, vocals
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