Sharing the Gift of Music with Soldiers Overseas

Steve Baker sorely missed playing his guitar while serving in Vietnam, so he jumped at the chance to send instruments to the troops in Iraq.

Posted in , Apr 11, 2019

A soldier in fatigues plays a guitar

I’ve loved music all my life. In fact, music saved my life. When I got back from Vietnam in the mid-1960s, I was stunned and directionless. For four years I’d run clandestine combat missions into North Vietnam. I’d seen unforgettable things, endured unforgettable pain. Then I came home to protests and people cursing our soldiers. I became angry, a drinker, stumbling from job to job.

There was only one constant—music. As a kid in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, I had picked up guitar early, then played in a high school rock band. My dad even helped cart our gear around. In Vietnam I yearned for a guitar—any guitar, no matter how cheap—to strum on worn-out evenings and sing songs with my buddies. The music would have made such a difference, given us such an island of peace. As it was, I didn’t find that island until I got home. Even in the depths of my alcoholism, I reconnected with my guitar and played it in southside Chicago blues joints. The gigs gave me something to look forward to—and a community of other musicians, guys who knew how music plumbs the bottom of your soul. I shudder to think where I’d be if I hadn’t come home to that.

Eventually I married and straightened myself out, quit drinking and landed a job with my dad’s long-haul trucking company in northern Minnesota. I jammed with local bands on weekends and saved money until, in 1990, I had enough to make music my life. I opened a window-front store in Grand Rapids, and later moved it to a small town called Fergus Falls, population 13,471. I sold guitars, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles, pianos, trumpets, violins, flutes and anything else you could squeeze a note out of. I didn’t get rich, but I did get to see the expression on kids’ faces when they took their first strum on a guitar and realized they could make a carved piece of wood produce beautiful, healing sound.

That sound, in fact, was on my mind a few years ago when my stepson, Marte, who was serving with the National Guard in Iraq, sent an e-mail to me, mentioning that he wanted to learn a new skill with all the downtime he had.

I looked around my shop and spied a shapely acoustic guitar hanging on the wall —a perfect gift for Marte, whose birthday was coming up. My wife, Barb, and I packed the guitar in a box, surrounded it with Styrofoam peanuts and addressed it to Marte in Baghdad. The Post Office made us repack it—the box was too big—but the guitar arrived unscathed. And, on his birthday, Marte called, unable to contain his excitement. “It’s beautiful!” he exclaimed. “I can’t wait to learn to play.”

And just like that, vivid memories of Vietnam, memories I’d buried, came back. I remembered my longing for a simple guitar, the long days in the jungle when a few notes of music would’ve meant so much to my buddies and me. It all became real again, how hard life can be in a war zone.

A couple of days later I got an e-mail from a friend of Marte’s. “That guitar you sent Marte is amazing,” he wrote. “Any chance I could buy one myself? Music would really help to ease the stress around here.” He included a credit card number.

Definitely! I thought, and ordered an instrument exactly like Marte’s, packed it (the right-sized box this time) and shipped it off.

A few weeks went by and an e-mail showed up in my inbox. “Dear Mr. Baker,” Marte’s friend wrote, “I can’t thank you enough for the guitar. You wouldn’t believe what a hit it is—mine and Marte’s. Guys are all over us for a chance to play, and the music is making everyone so happy. The only downside is that everyone wants one now, and of course most soldiers can’t afford one. It’s very frustrating.”

I read, staring at my computer screen. Frustrated didn’t begin to describe my feelings. Those soldiers should have music. They need music. Why doesn’t anybody do something about this?

Just then my friend Don poked his head through the door. “What’s up, buddy?” he said. Don is the sales rep for the local radio station. Sometimes he comes in to talk business. Most days he drops by to sip a soda and chat.

“Listen to this e-mail,” I said, reading it aloud. “I don’t know what to do.”

Don looked around my store, an expression of disbelief on his face. “Don’t know what to do? Steve, you own a music store. Let’s raise money and send those boys some instruments. I bet the local VFW Post would do a dinner for us.” I looked at him, then at my rows of instruments. All that music sitting there, waiting to be played. And all those soldiers, far away, waiting to play it.

“Don, I’ve never raised a cent in my life,” I said. “How do you even do that?”

Well, Don knew what to do. As he promised, the local VFW Post offered to host a meatball dinner for us. We raised nine hundred dollars and I even persuaded a guitar-company sales rep I knew to give me a discount. Soon, Barb and I were boxing up 15 guitars addressed to Baghdad. I had goose bumps driving them to the post office.

That was about two years ago. Since then we have shipped more than 550 instruments to Iraq—everything from your basic guitar to bagpipe chanters, Native American flutes and a 1956 military band trumpet that was donated by a woman who told me that her dad would have wanted his favorite instrument to go to a soldier.

Word about us spread on the internet, and e-mails from soldiers poured in. Barb recently quit her part-time job to pack boxes in the back room of Fergus Music.

We’re not making any money. In fact, we can barely keep up with costs—the postage kills us. But then we receive an e-mail like this one from a soldier stationed in Baghdad: “Dear Steve and Barb, thank you so much for the new guitar. It couldn’t have come at a better time. I was so down, I was just walking around in a daze, thinking about home, and then somebody told me that I had a big package. That box saved the day for me. I don’t know how to thank you.” Thank me? E-mails like this do more than thank me. Each one is like a letter from my long-ago self—a closing of old wounds and a renewal of the promise that has sustained me for all these years. The promise that, no matter where you are in life, even in a war zone, a carved piece of wood can produce beautiful, healing sound.

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