Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a hair-trigger condition. Many who suffer from the ugly disorder go about their lives in constant anxiety, a fearful, distrustful state with no “off” switch. Dreams turn to nightmares, and thoughts always seem to gravitate back to painful memories. Triggers come from anywhere: a sound, a smell, a look or even just a vibe — prompting panic attacks, flashbacks, dissociative episodes, intrusive thoughts or violent out-bursts.
More than any other demographic, America’s veterans are the largest group suffering from PTSD. The horrors they’ve been exposed to often come home to haunt them, and managing those ghosts is no cakewalk. Many have to make serious life changes like avoiding large crowds, loud noises, and unexpected disturbances — in part to protect themselves from a PTSD outburst, but also to protect loved ones around them.
Unfortunately for vets with PTSD, that makes going to live music events all but impossible. That is until a distillery in a small Colorado town stepped in. They’re limiting PTSD triggers during in-house shows, while bringing in massive bands to take part.
Ryan Thompson, founder of the 10th Mountain Division Whisky and Spirits Company, in Gypsum, Colorado, saw vets unable to partake in one of life’s greatest pleasures and thought it was flagrantly unacceptable. His distillery is named after the army’s infamous “mountain warfare unit” — backcountry soldiers who fought Nazis in the Alps; mountaineers who could ski, scale and survive in any alpine terrain they were deployed in. And while their hay-day was back in WWII, the division is still around today, and through his work, Thompson has met a lot of incredible veterans who served with the division.
Thompson (an avid concert goer himself) invited one of those vets, a retired sniper named Weston, to go see Metallica play a show in Denver this past summer. “I’d love to go,” Weston had told him, “But there’s no way my PTSD would allow me in that environment.”
Which sucks. Music is chicken soup for the soul, melodic medicine for the mind. Music is proven to lift listeners' spirits by stimulating dopamine production in the brain. It changes mood, increases motivation and reduces chronic stress. And few experiences are as exciting as seeing your favorite band play your favorite songs live, in-person.
That’s a freedom vets fought to preserve, and yet many can’t even enjoy themselves …
So Thompson ended up going without his pal, but couldn’t stop thinking about what he’d said. He felt that there had to be a way for Weston, and other vets like him, to enjoy live shows even with their PTSD symptoms. And if there wasn’t already a way to do that, he determined to make one.
Thus began War Angel’s Concerts, a Colorado-born non-profit organization dedicated to providing veterans with comfortable, controlled environments to see their favorite bands.
Thompson initiated the organization with the goal of hosting one concert at one venue — his distillery. But it quickly grew to something more.
“Our goal [now] is to build a network of bands and veterans and venues all around the country and hold at least one concert a month,” he says proudly.
Only fifty vets will be allowed to attend the concerts, but they get in for free and each have a plus one. Meaning these shows will be extremely intimate, 100 people max. The venues will all be “PTSD proofed,” says Thompson, and the performances won’t have any unexpected pyrotechnics or loud noises. Access to exits will make it easy for vets to take a moment to re-collect if they need to, and Thompson says that just being in a setting surrounded by other people suffering from the same condition can be helpful to reduce PTSD triggers in and of itself.
“Having the vets know that they’re in an environment with guys and gals that understand each other, is a big part of it,” Thompson adds.
The 10th Mountain Division tasting room in Gypsum will host the first War Angel’s Concert this next summer. And they’ve reached out to some of the biggest names in rock and roll, too, with the response being overwhelmingly positive. According to Thompson, bands that normally fill stadiums like Sports Authority Field and the Pepsi Center have shown excitement to play for such an exclusive audience.
“I’ve talked to some bigger bands already and they’re showing some interest — some of the biggest bands in the world, it’s kind of crazy,” says Thompson. “We’ve had some venues that have raised their hands and said we could use their spot, so now it’s a matter of getting the word out and getting in front of some of the veteran communities.”
Gypsum itself is a small mining town on the Eagle River, just off of I-70 in the Colorado mountains. It’s a beautiful place, one you read about in books, but one that most people drive straight past on their way to Glenwood, Aspen or Moab to ski or hike. And to have world famous rock bands visit a place like that, to play shows for just 100 people, is an incredible accomplishment Thompson hopes to soon achieve.
“It’s something that we’re passionate about, and something that we’re surprised hasn’t been done yet,” says Thompson, “And I think it’s going to be a fun project just to pursue and see where it goes.”