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Army veteran suffers brain injury, turns to music to heal

The 100 Flag Display for Veterans Day at the Iowa State Fair. There is one flag for each of the 99 counties in Iowa, and one flag which represented all who served.

Summarization of events written by the Veteran X Team.

After surviving a devastating injury that left her with memory loss, Diane Bekel lost sight of her passion for music and playing the clarinet. Nearly two decades later, she has made an amazing recovery while playing with the Iowa Military Veterans Band. Now her and others are encouraging veterans and civilians alike to recognize the power of musical healing.

Summarization of events written by the Veteran X Team.

Original article:

This veteran suffered a brain injury in the army. She said music helped her heal

Diane Bekel lost everything when she suffered brain damage in the line of duty in 2003. 

She lost part of her memory, her job, her military family and, most difficult of all, her music. The piece of herself that she felt defined who she was suddenly disappeared. 

She tried to pick up a clarinet, the instrument she’d been playing since she was in fifth grade, but the notes escaped her. She said she felt like she had no other choice but to give up.

“I totally walked away from music,” she said. “I turned my back.”

Fifteen years later, a friend asked Bekel to play Christmas music. Before she could even think, she said her mouth blurted out “yes.” 

She was sure she would not be able to do it. She had barely touched the instrument in over a decade. There was no way she would remember anything, she thought. 

Despite her fears, she gave it a try. 

“I picked the horn up and it was back,” she said, the shock still present in her voice as she recounted the story. 

“It was like I wasn’t brain injured anymore. I didn’t have the accident. It was like it used to be,” she said. “That was just absolutely tremendous.” 

That moment, according to Bekel, showed her the true healing power of music. 

Nearly 19 years after the accident, Bekel, now 60 years old, performed on the Susan B. Knapp Stage on Veteran’s Day at the Iowa State Fair as a member of the Iowa Military Veterans Band.

She found her music again and rediscovered her community. Surrounded by a family of military veterans who also put their lives on the line to fight for their country, Bekel played the triumphant notes of America’s most patriotic songs on her clarinet. 

A community bonded through music and service

A retired submariner, a combat cameraman, a dentist and a former launch control facility manager for intercontinental ballistic missile sites; those are just a few of the over 100 members of the Iowa Military Veterans Band.

Founded in 1996, the band originally sought to honor World War II veterans, but soon blossomed into a way to bring together veterans of all walks of life and bond them through their shared experiences and love of music. 

“It provides a lot of camaraderie,” said James Goodwin, the band director who served in the army for 29 years. “Every one of us took the oath to protect the U.S. against all enemies foreign and domestic.” 

Regardless of their background or military occupational specialty, Bekel said every member of the military will tell you the thing they miss the most is the community.

“In the military, that’s probably the best thing you have. The camaraderie, the family part of it,” she said. 

Being a part of the band is a way to recreate that sense of family with others who truly understand its meaning, according to Bekel. She said it also serves to remind any veteran who listens to their music that they are part of that family, too. 

“It’s reminding the veterans that they’re a part of something bigger,” she said. 

Music as Healing 

Judy Gaston, 73, a retired ICBM facility manager in the Air Force, said the last words her husband ever said to her before he passed away were “keep playing.” 

The night he passed away from his long-fought battle with cancer, Gaston said she played his favorite hymns on her flute. 

“It’s healing,” she said. 

Just like Gaston, Bekel said she believes music has the power to heal.

It took her years to redevelop the neuro-pathways that had been severed due to her brain injury, Bekel said. Rediscovering music, she said, helped expedite her healing. 

“I have a deep appreciation for how music can rewire your brain,” she said. 

Beyond themselves, both Bekel and Gaston said they hope military music and the sense of camaraderie it provides helps those veterans still struggling to recover from their injuries, both physical and emotional.

“You don’t know how many people in the audience might be facing something terrible where music can be cathartic for them,” Gaston said. 

They said they worry for the younger generation of veterans coming out of combat today. 

Bekel’s sons, both veterans of the war in Afghanistan, struggle with PTSD. She said they have attended more funerals than she can count of friends who committed suicide after their service. 

In 2019, 6,261 veterans committed suicide, averaging about 17.2 veteran suicides per day, according to the most recent data released by the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. Although the average suicide rate among veterans decreased between 2018 and 2019, the department reaffirmed in its 2021 annual report that much work remains to be done to further prevent such tragedies. 

Painfully aware of these tragedies, Bekel said she hopes music can help to provide healing to others in the same ways it did for her. 

“I hope that when people come to hear us, if they’re a veteran and they’re struggling, that this might help them to feel like ‘OK, I’m not alone,'” she said. 

Continuing tradition

Bekel said when you go into the service, there are a few things you have to keep in mind. 

First, she said, get rid of your ego before you walk in the door, “because you’re going to lose it anyway.” 

Second, recognize the role violence plays in the military, and make sure you are OK with that. 

Third, understand that joining the military means promising to uphold military traditions. 

Nearly 20 years after retiring from active duty, Bekel continues to work toward the last point with her contributions to the Iowa Military Veterans Band. 

“It’s a keeper of traditions,” she said of the band’s work. 

Music in the military has a significant and storied history, from the first trumpet calls signaling military strategy in battle to USO Bands bringing joy and entertainment to soldiers around the world. 

Today, the active duty military band serves as a beacon of American pride and patriotism, Bekel said. “It’s reminding soldiers what they’re fighting for.” 

In her role in the Iowa Veterans Military Band, Bekel said she hopes the traditions preserved within the music help the military share their traditions with the civilian world. 

“It’s to educate those civilians, and give them a window into military life and military customs and military traditions,” she said. 

Honoring veterans at the Iowa State Fair

On Monday, the band came together for a concert on a rainy day afternoon to honor veterans at the Iowa State Fair. 

The sound of rain droplets faintly hitting the metal bench seating at the amphitheater did not stand a chance against the trombones, trumpets, clarinets and drums coming together in harmony, guided by a deep baritone voice. 

“God bless America, land that I love,” the voice sang in a rendition of the patriotic song “God Bless America.” The song, written by Irving Berlin during the First World War as a battle song, was now emblematic of peace, the band’s announcer Fred Chabot said during the concert. 

The band’s selection of music honors great American songwriters, such as Berlin and John Philip Sousa, composer of “The American March,” according to the band’s website. 

For Goodwin, he said the songs represent who he is, from his time serving in the military to his passion for playing, conducting, writing and teaching music. 

“The songs that we play,” he said, “they speak from my heart.” 

The emotions extended across the audience Monday night, as retired military members and their families sat huddled together under awnings, trees and umbrellas to watch the band play. 

“It’s very emotional,” said Kenneth Cook, 79, a retired Master Sergeant in the Air Force. Listening to the music brought back memories of his service, Cook said. 

“I think of all the people that died for our country,” he said, his eyes welling with tears, barely able to get the words out. 

For members of the band like Chabot, a retired Air Force Colonel, honoring those military members, many of whom gave up their lives for their country, is core to the band’s purpose. 

“It is an honor to be at the state fair to remind everybody through our music of the very very important role that military men and women have served our country over the decades,” he said. 

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Information vetted by the Veteran X Team.


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