LAKELAND -- When visiting hospital rooms they bring the gift of music for its power to heal.
More than that, they take time to listen, exchange war stories, share a part of themselves few civilians will ever fully comprehend.
Shannon Thomas of Lakeland is founder of Sgt. Shredder -- Rocking to Heal Vets Inc. Officers of the charity include Dave Arnold, an Army veteran from Auburndale, and Wayne "Skip" St. Sauveur of Lakeland, who served in the Navy.
Thomas, aka Sgt. Shredder, is a guitar-banging rocker who spent six years in the Army, stateside and abroad, during the Gulf War. Haunted by his experiences, he has struggled with severe depression and substance abuse.
Eventually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Thomas has made it his mission to regularly visit veterans in crisis with the same disorder or recovering from traumatic injuries. In most cases the visits take place at the James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa and the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Bay Pines near St. Petersburg.
Arnold, a self-employed home remodeler, and St. Sauveur, a photographer, assist Thomas, a warehouse worker for Publix Super Markets Inc. The trio raises money through T-shirt sales and concerts performed by the Sgt. Shredder Band, whose members include Thomas and Arnold, both guitarists.
They use the money to buy gifts for hospitalized veterans. Items include American flags that have flown over the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor and other places that hold special meaning.
The guitars were Thomas' idea.
"Music is therapy to me," he said. "It saved my life. It helps focus. The patients we're helping, many lose mobility (through injuries) and they lose functions of the mind."
Thomas learned the art of building guitars while employed during the early 1990s by Paul Reed Smith Guitars in Maryland. He continues to build instruments to give away. Sponsors such as Dean USA Guitars in Tampa donate instruments as well.
For those veterans who play the instrument, or hope to learn, the gifts provide a kind of therapy, said Evelyn Mack, a recreation therapist at the Haley hospital.
"As a veteran himself, Shannon displays true compassion and connection with the veterans' stories and challenges," she said. "The patients enjoy visiting with Shannon and his group. It makes them feel cared for in a way that family, friends and hospital staff cannot relate -- through shared military culture and experiences. Their work is genuine and appreciated by all."
Of course, not every veteran in need is a musician. That's where the flags come into play.
"When I hand a flag to a veteran, it's like the happiest moment in your life," Thomas said.
Likewise, there's a lot of joy on the receiving end.
"It's an unbelievable feeling in that place" when a comrade takes possession of the Stars and Stripes, said Arnold. "They did something for America and they deserve some help."
To raise funds, the Sgt. Shredder group puts on concerts. Their next big benefit is scheduled for Nov. 13 at Quaker Steak & Lube restaurant, 10400 49th St., Clearwater.
Thomas continues to receive therapy for PTSD. He's among the 12 percent of Gulf War veterans who are diagnosed with the disorder in any given year, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
"I'm a client," Thomas said. "But I'm never happier than when I'm helping a veteran."
-- Eric Pera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7528. ___
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