Music heals through local volunteer organization

Through Guitars 4 Vets (G4V), a nonprofit that supports veterans by offering free guitar lessons, veterans receive aid in recovering from PTSD and other emotional hardships.

G4V, created in 2007, is a nationwide organization that operates out of local chapters. Students receive 10 free lessons and a complimentary guitar after graduation. In May 2023, Greg Combs established a chapter in Southern Pines, serving as chapter coordinator to this day.

Combs has been in and out of Moore County since the ‘80s, and he now lives in Southern Pines. After serving in the Army, he followed his passion and opened his bike shop, May Street Bicycles, in Southern Pines.

Unfortunately, Combs was struck by a vehicle while cycling only a few weeks after his shop’s grand opening. He suffered trauma to the head, leaving him with severe brain damage. “I had to relearn the ABCs. I didn’t know my parents’ names,” he said. “I was ground zero.”

While recovering, his neuropsychologist recommended he learn a new language to strengthen his brain. His girlfriend suggested that instead of taking on a language, Combs should try learning guitar, another form of therapeutic learning.

Combs fell for guitar instantly, and he quickly stumbled upon G4V online. However, there were no local chapters, so he took virtual lessons through the program. Afterward, he started up his own chapter. The Southern Pines G4V chapter grew quickly, currently consisting of 10 instructors and 45 students.

Many G4V lessons are held at May Street Bicycles, where numerous guitars are proudly displayed alongside the shop’s cycling merchandise. That’s where instructor John Blackburn and student Doug Kissell met on Feb. 3. They were there for Kissell’s tenth and final lesson, having started studying together in October.

Music heals through lvolunteer organization

Instructor John Blackburn (left) and student Doug Kissell (right) at May Street Bicycles with Kissell’s complimentary guitar.

Though instructors do not have to be veterans to give G4V lessons, both men served our country.

“I was Air Force,” said Blackburn, serving from 1971-1977.

“I was Army, active duty, served 25 years, and I just retired out of Fort Bragg in July,” Kissell said.

Kissell heard about G4V when visiting the shop for a bicycle tuning. He’s been all in since. Like most G4V students, Kissell started out clueless about playing guitar. “The first lesson was very overwhelming,” he said. “I left thinking, I don’t know if I’ll ever figure any of this out.”

“(Learning guitar) is quite a challenge, especially not being musically inclined at all,” Kissell continued. “And the other part of it, for me personally, is I have mild PTSD from deployment to Afghanistan. Any time I play guitar, it calms me down, mellows me out, makes me feel good …. It doesn’t sound like much to most people, but it is to me. It’s really helped me.”

Though he doubted himself, after a few months of practice, Kissell said, “It’s amazing how far I’ve come.”

However, it’s a learning experience for both veterans, as Kissell was Blackburn’s first student. Blackburn appreciates G4V allowing him to play music and share his knowledge with others. He’s humble about his skill, but he’s had an impact on Kissell.

“I’m to the point where I can be pushed off and keep going with it,” Kissell said, excited. “I know enough to progress …. I have no regrets. I’m excited to be on my tenth lesson and to be a part of this. I’m thankful for Guitars 4 Vets.”

But the guitar playing doesn’t stop after the tenth lesson. Graduates, instructors, and all veterans in the area are invited to monthly G4V jam sessions. Hatchet Brewery in downtown Southern Pines provides the space, and G4V covers every attendee’s tab.

The G4V community always welcomes new members, and they would love to have your support. Any veteran can receive lessons. Anyone can be an instructor. Contact their Facebook page for more details:

Feature photo: Guitars 4 Vets Southern Pines Chapter Coordinator and May Street Bicycles owner Greg Combs.

~Article and photos by Sandhills Sentinel reporter Andrew Sellers.

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