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Band Airman uses skillset to honor dying veterans

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Lealan Buehrer
  • 182nd Airlift Wing Public Affairs
It was in Afghanistan during a 2012 deployment when Tech. Sgt. Carrie Gatz saw her civilian and military careers overlap at Bagram Airfield's hospital. The Air National Guard Band of the Midwest instrumentalist and her ensemble had just finished performing an acoustic set at the nurse's station when the chief of medicine offered them a tour of the hospital.

During the tour, they came across an Afghan family in the trauma unit. Two siblings lay bedridden with severe burns from an improvised explosive device that detonated while they played in their yard. The chief asked if the band members would play for the kids.

Gatz thought nothing of it. Playing for the critically ill was part of her civilian job, so she began strumming basic nursery rhymes on her guitar. One of the burnt children lifted his head at the sound of the music, much to the surprise of his parents. For Gatz, it was a routine response to music therapy. For her fellow Airmen, it caused tears.

Gatz's music training and profession translated well, even 7,000 miles away from the Chicago suburbs where she works as a hospice music therapist. A variety of medical professionals make up her company that provides end-of-life comfort care to more than 600 Chicagoland patients at homes, assisted living facilities, hospitals and hospice centers. Gatz, a board-certified music therapist, visits on average three to six patients a day with the goal of improving their quality of life.

Whether it's walking Alzheimer's patients through lost memories of their youth, assisting cancer patients working through overwhelming emotions or helping patients battle pain, Gatz's role combines musical talent with clinical skills to help treat the spirits of the dying.

"We're therapists. We're there to support them in whatever they're going through," she said. "It's all based on using live music interventions to help our patients reach their goals or to manage symptoms."

Gatz, who holds a master's degree in music therapy from Illinois State University paid for by the Illinois National Guard Grant, said the tools of her trade are typically vocals, the guitar, piano and percussion. In addition to those instruments, Gatz is also proficient with the French horn and trumpet, all which she has performed with in the ANG Band of the Midwest for the past 12 years.

Gatz's 40-person ANG band -- one of only five in the country -- use concert, Dixie, jazz and rock as a community relations conduit between the armed forces and the civilian public. The Peoria-based unit covers a 10-state region and provides Airmen for outreaches including military funerals, patriotic celebrations and community events. The unit also uses their two weeks of annual training every summer to travel the Midwest and share the story of the U.S. military mission, heritage and pride through music.

"I love when we do our summer tours and get to be out in the community," Gatz said. "My favorite part of our performance that never gets old for me is when the last thing we play is 'Armed Services Medley' and [our commander] asks for people to stand in the audience when they've heard their service songs."

She said she finds it a proud and moving experience to thank veterans and give something back to them through music.

It was through her own experiences as a military instrumentalist that Gatz was able to help create a recognition ceremony at her hospice job that thanks and honors terminal patients' military service in the presence of their family and friends. She designed it to be customizable to the needs of the individual patients, but typically involves patriotic poems and songs, including "America the Beautiful", the patient's service song and "God Bless America". The veterans also receive a certificate of appreciation and an American flag pin.

Sometimes the ceremonies are in the form of a Veteran's Day or Memorial Day observance with all the veteran patients. Often, the ceremonies are individual and the last recognition a veteran receives, as was in the case of one World War II veteran Gatz visited.

The veteran's daughter at his bedside asked Gatz to help her sing the Navy service song, "Anchors Away", for him. Only a few minutes after they finished, the sailor took his last breaths and passed away.

Her favorite ceremony memory was of a Vietnam War veteran surrounded by a large group of his loved ones. The veteran's health had weakened to where he was lethargic and could not speak. At the end of the ceremony, the veteran's Navy officer brother-in-law called the room to attention and all service members present rendered a salute. The veteran mustered what energy he could to try to raise a salute back. Gatz said that while normally she can remain professionally even keeled, that moment caused her to tear up.

Despite the inevitable passing away of her patients, Gatz said her occupation is not marked by constant grief like some may think.

While there are sad and tough days, she said she loves hospice care because she's part of a support team that is in a position to provide comfort and dignity to veterans' final days.

"It's very holistic," Gatz said, "and I really get to make a difference at a really pivotal time in someone's life."