Army Staff Sgt. (Ret.) Paul De La Cerda is a quality guy, the kind of dude you’d want in your corner for just about any trouble. Luckily, De La Cerda is that corner guy for U.S. veterans every day. Through his Houston-based organization, Rock 4 Recovery, he’s doing something unique for those who have suffered while on active duty — using music therapy to help them recover. So far, it's working wonders for men and women who really need the support.
“I’m not just some guy," he says. "I’ve experienced trauma, too.”
De La Cerda is right. He cares deeply for his military brothers and sisters, and has dedicated his whole life to spreading recovery. In 2005, while serving in Iraq, an IED exploded near his Humvee. While no one died or had serious injuries (or so it appeared) De La Cerda later found out he indeed received a TBI (traumatic brain injury) as a result of the explosive. It lead to many negative outcomes for him, including PTSD, depression and severe memory loss.
“You know, I played drums since I was just a kid in high school," he reflects. "I had to relearn how to play.”
During his time reteaching himself to play rock music on his drum kit, De La Cerda discovered that music was not only a creative outlet, but could be a source of healing. It was only a matter of time before he not only formed a band of veterans (Vetted, the world’s first Wounded Warrior Band), but started playing shows exclusively for veterans. That grew into the space that Rock 4 Recovery resides in now — a huge rehearsal space where veterans can come and play music, connect with other veterans and, of course, help heal their internal wounds.
But that wasn’t enough for De La Cerda. He reached out to several rock stars and got a huge amount of support. Many of them have not only given free tickets to these wounded warriors, but have even taken the time to offer a free VIP experience through pictures and conversation. For these veterans, it’s an evening away from all the stress that military trauma has dealt them, and it’s a chance not only to meet their music idols, but be thanked by them, too. To have a big-name rock god thank you for your service to protect our country is a pretty big deal.
Recently left with an extra ticket to a Marilyn Manson and Slipknot, I reached out to De La Cerda to see if any of his vets would like a ticket. Without hesitation, he pointed me to a young veteran who graciously accepted the offer. Fresh-faced, polite and accommodating, Andre Johnson is a 23 year-old veteran of the Navy. I am nearly twice his age, and my heart couldn't help breaking at the thought of this young man suffering for my freedom. I swallowed that down, thanked Johnson for his service and handed him his ticket, feeling like I owe him so much more.
Johnson lost all inhibitions when the lights came up on stage for Manson. Seeing him dance and headbang with such release and joy was undeniably satisfying. While Johnson thanked me for the gift, it was I who received far more.
Of course, Johnson is aware of how much Rock 4 Recovery has helped him. “Paul [De La Cerda] and his organization has been a great help with helping me deal with my mental issues….and music has always been my coping outlet," he says. "Going to these rock shows has been a blessing for me. I am so grateful for the opportunities [De La Cerda] has helped organize.”
Naturally, the rock community has been hugely supportive of De La Cerda and his efforts. Vetted has played in enormous national shows and been interviewed in Drum Magazine. “It’s always been rock stars who’ve supported us. Not rap, not pop, [but] for some reason the rock community cares about veterans," notes De La Cerda.
That support is essential. While Rock 4 Recovery has survived not only war wounds, it’s a nonprofit and at the moment needs serious donations. “Our van wrecked on our last tour with Vetted,” De La Cerda explains.
As if that weren’t enough, the rehearsal/therapy space they’ve leased has fallen behind on the rent. “With the soaring heat this summer, we were unable to air-condition the practice space," De La Cerda explains. "It’s just too expensive, so we had to close the doors. While we still exist, we couldn’t practice and that really hurt us.”
When asked if he was worried about going under, De La Cerda laughs with the wisdom of a man who has survived more setbacks than many of us will experience. “No, not at all," he says. "We’re survivors. This is what we do — we survive.” (He has also set up a GoFundMe page to help out with the organization's expenses.)
And survival is a big deal to him. He quotes the devastating suicide statistics of veterans, he’s seen men and women struggle in their return to civilian life, he’s witnessed hundreds of soldiers that have lost limbs and/or mental capacity to return home only to find limited support. It’s a constant source of concern for him and rather than just grow bitter or angry, he’s out on the front lines of recovery every day. Who better to assist those who are war wounded than those who have survived war themselves?
Even with a broken van, past due rent and responsibilities hanging over his head, De La Cerda keeps his focus and looks toward to future of helping even more vets. Just back from a therapy session at Fort Sill in Lawton, Oklahoma, De La Cerda excitedly explains the next chapter. “We’re doing a silkies hike where vets do a pub crawl through downtown in nothing but their silkies," he says, "then we’re off on a European tour through military bases with Vetted.
“You know we do these shows for the troops then we give them time to sit with us and just talk," adds De La Cerda, saluting Marine Corp veteran and Houston attorney Mark Metzger for helping create the Silkie Hike. "We get down to real issues they’re dealing with. This is how therapy works.”
Find out more about how you can help Rock 4 Recovery at rock4recovery.org.