Veterans heal mentally with rock 'n' roll

Ericka Glenn of West Philadelphia (above) warms up with her band of fellow war veterans (below) before a recording of "Bands of Brothers." The reality-show-like webisodes, aired at bandsofbrothers.org, show how band members overcome trauma through playing music.
Ericka Glenn of West Philadelphia (above) warms up with her band of fellow war veterans (below) before a recording of "Bands of Brothers." The reality-show-like webisodes, aired at bandsofbrothers.org, show how band members overcome trauma through playing music. (PHOTOS: DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: October 26, 2012

JERRY GRANTLAND grew up in Lansdowne, enlisted in the Army right out of Cardinal O'Hara High School, deployed to Iraq in 2003 and was on reconnaissance patrol in an armored personnel carrier when a roadside bomb exploded.

He wasn't wounded physically. But after eight months of hypervigilance in Iraq, always ready to run for cover from frequent mortar attacks, Grantland came home to a National Guard assignment in Texas, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I was driving 75 miles-an-hour on I-10 when I saw a couple of guys at the side of the road who looked like they were duct-taping something to the guardrail," said Grantland, now 28 and living in Roxborough.

"I slammed on my brakes and walked across three lanes of interstate highway toward them before I said to myself, 'You're an idiot. They're not taping a bomb to the guardrail.' I walked back to my car."

After years of driving miles out of his way to avoid ordinary roadside debris that looked suspicious to him, and of feeling as if he was on the verge of losing control in a crowd because he couldn't see everything going on around him, Grantland got the counseling he needed in 2009 at the former Willow Grove Naval Air Station.

Now, he's reaching out to other veterans suffering from PTSD to let them know they can easily get help. And he's doing it through rock 'n' roll.

Last summer, Grantland joined "Bands of Brothers," a weekly reality-TV-style series - broadcast on bandsofbrothers.org - that shows PTSD-afflicted veterans meeting as strangers, bonding through music, forming three rock bands and rehearsing for a benefit concert at World Cafe Live in Philadelphia on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.

The "Bands of Brothers" concert will support Give an Hour, a national network of 6,500 licensed mental-health professionals who provide free therapy to veterans with PTSD and their families through giveanhour.org.

"No one's going to get kicked off the island on 'Bands of Brothers,' " said Give an Hour's founder, Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen. "The focus is on music and on healing."

Grantland, a drummer, said that whether he's playing "Irish-drinking punk, Flogging Molly- type music" with his bar band 58 Fury or pop/rock with "Bands of Brothers" veterans, "That's the only time in life I get to shut my brain off, not think about anything and just go."

When Grantland, who works at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Germantown, told co-worker and fellow-veteran Jordan Ketner of Havertown about "Bands of Brothers," Ketner sent in an audition tape of himself and his 2-year-old son singing "an awesome 'Stone Sour' by Through the Glass" - and got the gig.

Ketner, 29, a vocalist from Havertown, suffered from PTSD after returning home from his Army service in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"I'd see someone at the bus stop," Ketner said, "and think: 'Does that person have a gun? Did I look at him weird? If I looked at him weird and he has a gun, would he fire at me?' You're on guard all the time. It's exhausting. I don't look weird but everything inside is always moving."

Ketner's PTSD probably started in Afghanistan in summer 2002. "One bad night changed my life," he said. "We were in this intimate firefight, only six of us out there against a bunch of them. I lost one of my Army brothers. I got my first registered kill. I was 19 so it kind of sticks with you."

Six months after Afghanistan, Ketner served with a heavy-weapons company in Iraq, just outside Fallujah, where he was "engaged pretty profoundly in combat 29 out of the first 31 days."

On Dec. 13, 2003, he was riding convoy security in a Humvee when it hit a roadside bomb.

"The fireball was ridiculous," Ketner said. "I felt like my entire body caved in. My face and hands were burned. There was shrapnel in my foot. I never fully recovered."

Awarded a Purple Heart, Ketner came home in winter 2004, "ready to drink ridiculous amounts of booze and hate my life."

"I'd sleep from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. like a vampire," he said. "You get hammered to forget. I was just mean. A shrink was the last person I wanted to talk to. I had no friends. I hated my life."

Last year, Ketner realized he was pushing away the people he loved most - his wife and his three young sons - so he finally did the "hard therapy" he so desperately needed.

Today, Ketner hopes that "Bands of Brothers" webcasts reach out to thousands of vets who may not realize they can access free, expert mental-health help and relieve the daily torture of PTSD.

Despite its macho name, "Bands of Brothers" also includes sisters - like vocalist Ericka Glenn, 41, who grew up around 29th and Lehigh in North Philly, joined the Marines out of high school in 1989 and found herself, at 19, building a base camp in Saudi Arabia for Operation Desert Storm.

"The closest I'd ever been to war was seeing it on 'M.A.S.H.' " Glenn said. In March 1991, near Al Mishab, Glenn was coming out of their tent when she saw a huge orange ball in the sky, a few hundred yards away. She thought it was the desert sun. Seconds later, the missile hit, sending tent poles flying as if they were toothpicks, and sandblasting Glenn's ears, nose and mouth.

"Any closer," she said, "I would've been dead."

Glenn hasn't been the same since. "It just shook me to my core and made me real nervous," she said. "My hair fell out. When I came back to the States, I couldn't stand to hear door bells or anybody banging on the door. Any loud noises would trigger me off. I got very withdrawn. I drank a lot. I took a lot of drugs. I was just a wild child. With PTSD, you need help or you're going to be your own worst enemy forever."

After years of resisting it, Glenn found the mental-health counseling she needed, got clean and sober, and rediscovered her musical roots - her grandmother sang jazz, her mother sang gospel. Glenn, who sings both, said "Bands of Brothers" is powerful therapy.

"When we met Eric Bazilian from the Hooters, my hands were sweating so bad, I thought I was going to get electrocuted from the microphone," she said, laughing. "I almost fell OUT!"

"When he jammed on the guitar with us, and he was singing back and forth with me, looking me in my eyes, I could've just jumped off the stage and done a split right there, I was so happy."

Glenn said she is "like an open book" emotionally on "Bands of Brothers" because "I want to show others what PTSD looks like and I want people to get help," she said. "It's like there's a big heavy coat in layers on my back, and every time we do a show, one of those layers comes off."

The military veterans on "Bands of Brothers" webisodes range from bar-band performers to shower singers making their public debuts, but the pros who support them include stars like Bazilian and superb sidemen who have played with stars for decades, like bass guitarist Kasim Sulton.

"I don't want to sound sappy," Sulton said, "but it's one thing to get up onstage in front of 10,000 people and play 'Paradise by the Dashboard Light' and 'Bat Out of Hell' with Meat Loaf, and have people screaming 'ooh!' and 'aah!' - and it's quite another thing to play with just a few veterans who are going bananas because you're helping them.

"They come home and they're thrust back into normal life after going through a war, so of course it's going to affect them negatively. Jerry [Grantland] told me he can't go to a Phillies game because he just can't be in crowds.

"You want to help these people who put their lives on the line for us on a daily basis," Sulton said. "But I don't feel we can ever give them back as much as they've given to us."


Contact Dan Geringer at geringd@phillynews.com or 215-854-5961. Follow him on Twitter at @DanGeringer.

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