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Veterans relish way to relax with drum circle
Drums offer an outlet to escape, express
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Drummers, from left, Les Hymel, Russell and Delia Rego, Shirley and Will Palmer and Stephanie Bailey play at the American Legion Post on Riverside Drive. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Temperatures were hot, but an occasional breeze cooled things a bit, and the grassy hillside offered scenic views of Lake Lanier.

Overall, conditions were nothing like the stifling jungles of Vietnam and parched deserts of the Middle East — settings for America’s wars over the past few decades. Combined with rhythmic tappings in a drum circle, they provided the right antidote for former warriors struggling with that part of their past.

“It gives a euphoric feeling, and you get closer to Mother Earth,” said Les Hymel, who served in the Army from 1972 to 1992, at Wednesday’s session. “We’re all beings of energy and that’s what drumming is — energy, vibrations.”

Hymel, a North Hall County resident, was taking part in the Phoenix Rising Veterans Drum Circle, which meets every other Wednesday at the Chattahoochee Park pavilion at the American Legion Paul E. Bolding Post 7, 2343 Riverside Drive, Gainesville. The next session is set for July 16.

The drum circle isn’t intended for therapy, or as a service of some kind or affiliation with any health organization, said Stephanie Bailey, a Gainesville therapist who helps organize the sessions.

“We are simply a free supportive community for vets” with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury or some kind of physical injury, she said.

The group began with Bailey’s experience with the veterans she sees as part of her job. Veterans “give me strikingly similar reports” about how they avoid crowds and dislike talking with people, especially about war experiences.

“As I’m talking to these people, I’m thinking they really could use relaxation and it would really help if they could have a social network,” she said.

Bailey could relate to the veterans herself, to some extent.

“I don’t particularly like to be around people, either,” she said. “I’m really very introverted.”

Bailey said she was at a drum circle in Asheville, N.C., and didn’t feel anxious.

“And then it hit me: I wonder if we could try this for veterans,” she said.

Bailey started advertising the event in October.

“It’s just a way to help them be able to relax and improve their quality of life, because that’s going to expand over to the families,” she said. “And heaven knows the families go through a lot, too. If their families are healthier, then our families are healthier.”

The sessions are informal, with participants choosing a percussion instrument, ranging from maracas and bells to hand drums and tambourines. Someone starts with a basic rhythm — what Bailey refers to as a “pacer” — and “then everyone else just plays whatever they feel like playing,” she said.

“As we’re playing, the rhythm and sound changes and develops,” Bailey said. “It might speed up or slow down.”

“Nobody really knows what they’re doing,” said retired Marine Master Sgt. Russell Rego, who helps promote the drum circle, having attended since the first session.

“We just get in there and think about something you want to do,” he said. “At the time, you really don’t care what it sounds like, but as it goes on ... you might change it a little bit to make it more harmonious.”

Bailey said the playing is based on “whatever you’re feeling at the moment.”

“That’s one of the reasons I thought this would be such a good thing for this group, because it’s a way to express yourself without having to talk,” she said.

Will Palmer, a southeastern Hall resident who served in the Navy Seabees during the Vietnam War, returned home with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The drum circle “lets us relax and kind of get our mind away from things,” he said.