Veteran Chase Puleo, who served in the Army in Vietnam, sings in the group Rock for Vets, a group of veterans who use music therapy to help wounded
Veteran Chase Puleo, who served in the Army in Vietnam, sings in the group Rock for Vets, a group of veterans who use music therapy to help wounded warriors from wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan and both Iraq conflicts. Army veteran Rachel Okon, left, joins in on vocals. (Sean Hiller / Staff Photographer)
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Chase Puleo has been to hell and back.

He almost got killed in Vietnam after parachuting into what turned out to be a fierce firefight. His wife and son died after their car was hit by a drunk driver. He was homeless "on and off" for 10 years. He was struggling to survive.

But you wouldn't know about all of that strife when Puleo strides on stage with his rockabilly pompadour, starts shaking his hips and belts out songs like Conway Twitty's "It's Only Make Believe" with the Rock for Vets band.

"At one time I was scared for my sanity," Puleo said this week. "The one thing that kept pulling me out of that darkness was music."

Puleo, who lives in San Pedro, is one of the lead performers with the Rock for Vets band that is the centerpiece of a music therapy program at the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Long Beach.

Rock for Vets, an independent, nonprofit organization, was started in 2010 by Frank McIlquham, a retired banker and professional drummer who wanted to help veterans suffering from mental or physical wounds.

The program provides veterans an opportunity to learn to play a musical instrument or sing and become part of the band guided by former professionals from the music industry.

There are 130 veterans signed up for the program, with a core of 30 who perform publicly in the band.

"Music is a great healing tool," said Rex Jennings, chief of volunteer services at the VA Hospital. "As a member of the band, they have to learn to work together as a team. It helps them with the challenges in their lives."

McIlquham adds that participating in the band helps veterans open up and communicate, increasing their self-confidence and self-esteem.

McIlquham comes from a military family. His father was in the Air Force. His brothers were in the Coast Guard and Marines. Ironically, McIlquham didn't serve in the military. "I was too busy with other things, but I asked myself if there wasn't something I could do for veterans. I had some money from my banking job and, with my drumming experience, I decided to start this music therapy program. It's been very satisfying to see how it helps vets."

Vets like Jeff Pollock, who was born and raised in Whittier, agree. He tells this story.

"I was an F-14 aircraft mechanic on the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier in the Middle East in 1993," he said. "We were in hostile waters and we sent pilots out one night. One of the pilots came back and crashed on deck. His plane exploded and he died. We couldn't save him."

Pollock said he didn't know anything about psychological stress issues then, but he eventually was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he had problems with drinking and got fired from different jobs.

"I would go into depression, have no interest in anything and even become suicidal," he said. "I have no real music background, but I always wanted to be a drummer, so when I heard about Rock for Vets I decided to try it. It's been very good for me."

Pollock plays percussion drums and cowbells in the band. He also is proud of the one solo he sings, Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally."

Other band members have similar stories.

Leif Meisinger was in an Army Humvee in Iraq when they were attacked.

"We were in a convoy and got ambushed," he recalled. "We hit an IED (improvised explosive device), and my spine got smashed. I can walk now, but I have constant back spasms. I came home in 2008 and got frustrated and angry a lot."

He heard about Rock for Vets and signed up. "I went to grade school in Seal Beach and knew friends into music. I always wanted to play the drums. At first, it was hard because of my short-term memory loss problems, but Frank helped me a lot. One of my favorite songs I play in the band is `Tequila Sunrise."'

Cristina Calderon, an Army Pfc. from 1999-2002, said she "just missed going to Iraq," but she said she was sexually attacked while on duty at Fort Riley, Kan. She has been diagnosed with PTSD.

"I also lost my mother when she was 47," Calderon said. "I had lots of depression, no sense of purpose. Three years ago I got in an art therapy program at the VA Hospital. Then I heard about the music program and became an original member. I was a backup and now I'm a lead singer.

"There are a lot of vets out there falling under the radar," Calderon said. "People don't like talking about depression. This music program has opened up my life and given me a sense of purpose."

If you want to see Rock for Vets, they will be performing this weekend.

On Saturday they will be entertaining on the battleship Iowa in San Pedro about 2 p.m.

On Sunday, the band will be performing at the VA Hospital, 5901 E. Seventh St., as part of a Veterans Day celebration from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The band will perform sometime between noon and 1 p.m.

If you want more information about Rock for Vets or want to help, either financially or by volunteering, call 866-597-1116 or email frank@therockclub.net

rich.archbold@presstelegram.com, 562-499-1285, twitter.com/richarchbold1