Guitars for Vets, Great Big Sea’s Sean McCann help soldiers heal through music


At first it may seem an unlikely coupling, the pacifist and the soldier, but they share one important goal: Helping Canada’s homeless and struggling veterans.

Sean McCann seemed to have the world by the tail. One of the front men for the internationally successful Newfoundland band Great Big Sea, his outside demeanour was the stuff of peace and love. But inside he held dark secrets of childhood abuse that, when combined with an addiction to alcohol, were slowly eating away at him.

Jim Lowther was a career soldier – a trained sniper, two tours of duty in Bosnia, deployed on a warship during the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Inside, the things that he witnessed and that he survived were consuming him, too. In his darkest moments he thought of ways to quietly end it all, to fake an “accident.”

Jim Lowther

Jim Lowther was a career soldier with the Canadian Forces, a trained sniper seen here in 1997 during one of his two tours of duty in Bosnia. (Courtesy Jim Lowther)

“You feel like you are drowning,” recalls Lowther, “and you can’t catch a breath, right? And you just want to catch a breath.

“There were times when I would be driving, I would think maybe I will just veer off the road, undo my seatbelt, you know what I mean. End it, right? And I never really said that before, but many times I felt like that.”

“I related to Jim,” McCann says. “Even though I haven’t served in an army, I know what it’s like to be alone and to be struggling through a crisis. In my case it was alcoholism and facing my own past.”

What brought them together was the ability to find comfort in music and a desire to help others, veterans mostly, who desperately need the help.

Coping with demons

Sean McCann

Sean McCann says playing guitar helped him cope with dark secrets of childhood abuse and an addiction to alcohol that were slowly eating away at him. He says he became an ambassador for Guitars for Vets, because he “totally understood how a guitar could really allow you deal with problems that are probably too hard to talk about. Mine was a lifeline.” (Reg Sherren/CBC)

Lowther had set up Veterans Emergency Transition Services (VETS) Canada in 2010, a program run by volunteers to help homeless vets in crisis. Since January this year alone, VETS Canada has received more than 1,000 calls from people across the country asking for help.

But Lowther wanted to do more. Picking up the guitar and drifting inside the music helped him cope with his demons, and he thought it could help others too. 

Guitars for Vets was born.

Over the past several years, Guitars for Vets has given more than 800 gently used guitars to veterans and serving members of the military who have occupational stress injuries, to use as a kind of therapy. 

The group also arranges lessons through volunteer musicians to help vets learn to play.

McCann says he was more than happy to step up as a Guitars for Vets ambassador.

“When he told me his story,” McCann says, “I totally understood how a guitar could really allow you deal with problems that are probably too hard to talk about. Mine was a lifeline.”

Guitars for Vets

Guitars for Vets is run by volunteers who have arranged donations of more than 800 guitars and set up music lessons as a type of therapy for veterans suffering from stress-related issues. It operates across Canada. (Reg Sherren/CBC)

McCann and Lowther have organized a concert in Ottawa for Nov. 10, including artists Sarah Harmer, Joel Plaskett and Jeremy Fisher. The Guitars for Vets: Play Your Part 2017 concert is meant to raise awareness and money to help put hundreds more guitars into the hands of former soldiers.

Music, says Lowther, may be just the help some of them need.

“It is tough to see because there are so many struggling,” Lowther says. “You just want to say, you know, wake up Canada, our troops aren’t necessarily being looked after. What about the broken soldiers?”

The pacifist, McCann, uses a decidedly military analogy to make his point about the healing power of music.

“It’s a weapon against anger and despair and pain,” McCann says. “If we can put this weapon in their hands, they have a chance, a fighting chance.”

A Canadian veteran and Great Big Sea guitarist team up to support former soldiers, fight PTSD with music11:11


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