JOINT BASE ANACOSTIA-BOLLING, D.C. --
As one of The U.S. Air Force Band’s six performing ensembles, The Air Force Strings perform a variety of musical styles, frequently in interesting and unique settings. One of these settings involves monthly performances for the Arts in Health (AIH) program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) in Bethesda, MD.
The mission of the WRNMMC Arts in Health Program is to build an integrated, sustainable program that provides military patients, families and caregivers, staff, students, and visitors multiple opportunities to engage with the arts which helps support their health and well-being.
The AIH program was officially authorized in 2019 by Navy Captain Mark Kobelja, who also served as the director of the program. However, Captain Kobelja was interested in more than just delivering live music to patients, staff, and visitors at the hospital.
His desired and innovative vision for the program was to be a leading, world-class Arts In Health program recognized for its quality and caliber within the Military Health System and the National Arts in Health community. It was to provide the integration of the arts into the standard of care in the military clinical environment and to establish best practices to be modeled throughout the arts in the health industry
As the program grew in scope, a more organized and detailed program was needed to ensure the sustainability, awareness and success of the program. Therefore, Navy Captain Moira G. McGuire was selected as its new Chief.
As part of the U.S. Air Force Band’s partnership with the AIH Program, the Air Force Strings perform monthly in several areas of the medical center, as a small strolling ensemble, and as a string quartet. This monthly schedule began at the end of 2019 and took a hiatus due to COVID-19. However, the Strings were then invited to return in July of 2020, and were the first group to provide live music since the beginning of the pandemic.
The U.S. Air Force Strings have a long history with Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. In 2004, the Healing Arts Exhibit at the medical center was started, in which Air Force Strings member, the late Chief Master Sgt. (ret) Jane Bockenek, was on the committee. She ensured that the Strolling Strings were available to perform at that first art show opening. The Strings have performed every year since then, with the exception of 2013, in which the government shutdown occurred.
Furthermore, in 2012, the medical center created a performing arts series entitled, "Stages of Healing,” which brought artists and performers into the public areas of the center to improve and enrich the environment of care. The Air Force Strings are also actively involved in this initiative.
Chief Master Sgt. Deborah Volker, a member of the Air Force Strings, frequently performs for the AIH program at Walter Reed. Furthermore, she has served on the AIH committee since its inception in 2016, and was invited by Captain McGuire to continue to serve on the committee.
She recalls a time when the Strings were allowed onto the patient floors. She states, “Last December, they actually pulled us into the pre-op and recovery area to perform. We also performed for patients waiting for appointments, patients and staff in the ICU units, patients and staff in the adult and pediatric infusion centers, and the in-patient wards. Since our return in July of 2020, we have only been allowed in the lobby areas, but still manage to lift the spirits of the patients and staff. It's great to be able to give back and help brighten their days!”
The AIH program has received many praises and accolades from five-year-olds, parents, patients, staff, all the way up to the director of the medical center.
Maureen Ross, a nurse practitioner who is assigned to the infusion unit, describes the effect that the Air Force Strings had on her floor. She states, “It was such a dreary day, and we had not seen the sun in two weeks. Then I heard music in the infusion room. The orchestra was playing, not too loudly, just right. The musicians spread out to play amongst the patients receiving their chemo. Their selection of music was perfect!”
She continues, “The mood of the whole office changed! We are a cheerful lot, or we would not be able to take on cancer. However, I had not been aware of how flat I was until the music cranked my energy three-fold. Thank you! I have been here two years and had not seen this.”
Air Force Brigadier General Patrick S. Ryder, Director of Public Affairs, was grateful that the Air Force Strings were able to perform at Walter Reed. He states, “I’m glad they were able to deliver some joy and comfort to patients while showcasing Air Force pride.”
As Walter Reed’s oldest and most consistent partners, the Air Force Strings have not only been an integral part of what led to the establishment of the Arts in Health Program, they will continue to be a key component of its future success!