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MUSIC PUTS PERFORMING VETERANS ON ROAD TO RECOVERY

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Every Wednesday, band and choir members from the Veterans Administration medical center here pack up their instruments and props, pile onto an old blue 44-passenger bus and drive to some nearby nursing home to perform for the residents.

Although patients themselves, these musical veterans stage an upbeat, professional show that often has the audience clapping and singing and sometimes even dancing before it's over.Nursing homes, while especially important, are not the only venues played by Temple's talented veterans. They also perform at schools, churches and sundry civic functions throughout this central Texas area.

Jennifer Lewis, director of the medical center's music department, said that by playing a year-round schedule of gigs these veterans, who have already served their country, "are contributing to the community and contributing to their own recovery by rebuilding their confidence and self-esteem."

All those in the seven-member band and 16-member choir suffer from some traumatic physical or mental illness. Most live in the 400-bed domiciliary behind this sprawling VA medical center's main hospital.

"This is something like a halfway house," Lewis said. "It serves patients who are self-medicated and have a certain level of independence but who are not ready yet to be out on their own."

The band and choir members seem in total control of the moment when they are performing, however. Watching them rehearse in the center's music building is like watching a professional company in some major performing arts center.

The band is good enough to have won three gold medals in the 1995 National Veterans Creative Arts competition. And it is versatile.

Jay Winegardner, a Vietnam veteran who has played in professional rock and country groups, is an excellent guitarist and singer who favors hard rock. Ed Hall, also a Vietnam veteran, is a first-rate saxophonist who is more at home with soft rock and the easy dance music he played with his own group, the Crossfires, before he was hospitalized.

Duard White, a veteran of the Korean war and an all-around guitarist, likes singing "the older songs," Lewis said.

The choir, though not quite as professional, is equally versatile, with members who dance as well as sing.

They include 79-year-old World War II veteran Robert Kirtley, who has a beautiful tenor voice, and 64-year-old James McDow, once an Arthur Murray dance instructor, who has won several prizes in national veterans competitions for his smooth dance routines.

Talking with a reporter one sunny afternoon, all spoke about how music has helped them on their road to recovery.

"I was in a deep, dark depression," said McDow, a Korean-era Army veteran. "The music and camaraderie here have revived my spirit."

The music department at this facility - known officially as the Olin E. Teague Veterans Center after the congressman who chaired the House Veterans Affairs Committee for many years - has grown impressively in the past two decades.

"When I came here, 17 years ago, we had one room, an old guitar and an ancient piano," said Lewis, an outgoing and multitalented music therapist.

Today Lewis' department has eight small practice rooms, a big rehearsal area, some listening rooms and tiny offices plus five pianos, three keyboards, a range of guitars and brass instruments, and extensive collections of sheet music, records and cassettes.

Any patient can come to relax, listen to records or take music lessons. Lewis, whose instruments are voice, piano, saxophone, oboe and practically anything else she picks up, teaches as much as possible.

She also uses patients, like Winegardner and Hall, as teachers "because they are better than I am on guitar and sax and they enjoy teaching."

Band and choir members are busy with rehearsals or performances almost daily throughout the year. Their repertoire ranges from the big band music of World War II to jazz, rock, country and such modern selections as the theme from "The Lion King."

During the 1995 Christmas season, they played an average of five nonpaid dates per week, traveling some 800 miles in their old Ford bus during a three-week period.

Immediately after the Christmas-New Year's season, they started rehearsals for the various local, regional and national contests that will decide who appears at the 1996 National Veterans Creative Arts Festival to be held in October in Louisville, Ky.

"All modesty aside, we do well in these events," said Lewis, pointing out that of 20 acts chosen to appear at the 1995 national festival in Lancaster, Pa., seven were from Temple, Texas. But the contests are not so important as the sense of family and fellowship the veterans form, she added.

Gwen Gibson writes on entertainment and the arts for MNS.