Heroes Ukulele Group: Helping Veterans, One Strum at a Time


“Being in this group really helps me deal with life in general,” says Steve Musnicky, a member of HUG, or Heroes Ukulele Group. “For me it’s a great form of therapy to help me deal with lots of depressing situations that I experienced in the military.”

Research on music and the brain makes it very clear: our lives are better when we make music, especially when we do it together. Although the ukulele may seem like an unlikely choice for a warrior, the men and women of HUG are using them to slay dragons. The group’s leader, Susanna Sandke founded HUG in 2014, shortly after she retired from a 40-year career as an entertainment industry costumer.

“I had been playing and studying ukulele for eight years and became aware that when I practiced or spent time playing with other ukesters I was relaxed, peaceful, and full of enjoyment—I found a sense of peace, calm, and serenity. I wondered if that could help folks with PTSD [Post-traumatic stress disorder]. I began researching the effects of music on the brain and discovered that the act of ‘playing’ music united, balanced, and equally lit up both sides of the brain.”

MORRIS C. LITWACK US Navy Electronic Technician, 3rd Class Petty Officer, and NANCY LITWACK
Ron Steve HUG Vet Uke
Left: STEVE MUSNICKY US Navy Seabees, E6 Equipment officer 1st class, 5 Navy Achievement Medals, United Nations Medal, Antarctic Service Medal “It’s uplifting, fun, and I always look forward to meeting on Wednesday with the group.”
Right: RONALD CROSS USMC, LCPL “Pride. Fun. A kind of therapy.”

At their weekly meetings, Susanna and Raymond H. Pierce (retired Navy) lead the core group of 25 players through warm-up hand and finger exercises designed to develop coordination—and loosen up arthritic fingers—as well as develop techniques they will draw upon as their playing advances. They play songs from all types of genres and try to cover a theory concept or technique every few weeks. All of this equally stimulates both sides of the brain and helps everyone to relax and focus.

Seeing their joy and hearing each member speak of what being in the group means to them is a powerful recruitment tool. Performing for other veterans makes their confidence soar, and they are making plans to play out around the Veteran’s Administration campus more often. Ranks always surge after a concert, and Susanna hopes that the numbers will grow, not just in her group, but also across America.


“Because ukulele clubs and communities have sprung up all over the country and the internet provides a trove of music and lessons, I hope that more communities will reach out to their veteran populations. Our group, HUG, is poised to become an official VA Occupational and/or Recreational group. As HUG grows, and our future path is presented to us, I will continue to reach out to the veteran community and maybe I will be able to find a way bring HUG’s to every VA.”

Burns Andersen HUG Vet Uke
Left: DAVID BURNS, Army Sharpshooter, “Solace and camaraderie. Music is comfort food for the soul; cooking it up thyself, home-style, enhances its nutritional value.”
Right: LES ANDERSON, US Marine Corps Sergeant Major, three Purple Hearts, Combat Action Medal, Vietnam Service, VN campaign, Cross of Gallantry, National Defense, USMCTV, “Music gives me recreation and diversion, camaraderie and fellowship with other vets: music therapy.”
Richard Martha Joe HUG Vet Uke
Left: RICHARD SILVERMAN, civilian, “In the group for more than four years. I want to learn more”
Middle: MARTHA GUZMAN, wife of Army and National guard 1st Sergeant Vietnam Vet.
Right: JOE HORZEMPA, Navy 3rd Class during Vietnam War, ”Fun, learn to play, and sing out loud.”
Salazars HUG Vet Uke
MARY AND TONY SALAZAR, USAF E-4,e, “Being in HUG means escape—and a chance to be around other vets”
Rick Jerry Larry HUG Uke Vet
Left: JERRY BRAUNLINZ, US Navy Stg 2, served in Vietnam, “I look forward to playing with this group and improving my musical skills.”
Middle: OFELIA and LARRY RUIZ, civilian, Son of Korean Army Vet “Fellowship”
Right: RICK STOLLMAN, Army PFC, “HUG gives me a chance to play ukulele with other people.”

WHO CAN JOIN: Any veteran, their family, families of active service personnel, any friend who honors and supports our vets and our men and women in uniform.

WHAT: We like to get rowdy, sing goofy songs, and generally enjoy our time together.

WHEN: Every Wednesday, beginner session 9:45 a.m., regular group meeting 10:30–Noon

WHERE: Contact: Susanna Sandke, Los Angeles Sepulveda VA Campus, 16111 Plummer Street, Bldg. 22, Rec Room, North Hills, CA 91343

These photos were taken at the 2017 Veteran’s Day luncheon at the North Hills VA facility near Los Angeles.