During the past 15 years, more than 2.5 million United States service men and women have deployed – and redeployed – to Iraq and Afghanistan, the longest wars in America’s history. During that time, they have faced brutal asymmetrical warfare from insurgents, an enemy they rarely see. Over 6,600 Americans have died, hundreds have endured major limb amputations and nearly 300,000 have experienced traumatic brain injuries, some of which take years of therapy to overcome.
U.S. Army Captain Luis Avila joined the Army in 2000, just before the September 11 terrorist attacks, and was in the midst of serving his fifth overseas deployment. On Dec. 27, 2011, he was leading a search and secure mission along the Pakistani border of Afghanistan. On the way back to base, a 600-pound improvised explosive device detonated beneath Avila’s vehicle, splitting it in half. Stunned and covered in blood, Avila called out to his men, “Accountability check! Who’s hurt?” Then he lost consciousness.
Three of Avila’s fellow soldiers were killed immediately by the blast, and two others were left severely wounded. Avila was rescued and eventually brought to a hospital in Germany. His diagnosis was dire; since the attack, Avila had suffered two strokes and two heart attacks, and a severe lack of oxygen had caused anoxic brain damage, leaving him completely paralyzed. Avila’s left leg had also been amputated.
Claudia, Avila’s wife, rushed to her husband’s bedside. Some of the doctors suggested he be disconnected from life support, but Claudia resisted. Despite his comatose state, she spoke to him and comforted him. She even played music for him, believing it would help his recovery.
Miraculously, after 40 days in a coma, Avila woke up. Although he couldn’t see, talk or eat, he heard and responded to the music Claudia played. It was a monumental step forward, but a long road of recovery lie ahead. Day after day, Avila underwent physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy – and continued music therapy, which proved to be a crucial rehabilitation tool, as music helped Avila speak again and provided a much-needed morale boost when he was otherwise too exhausted to move his muscles.
Though music for healing has been used by the military for over 70 years, beginning in World War I when professional musicians performed in Veterans hospitals, it is now emerging as a cutting-edge treatment modality aiding recovery from war-related trauma including amputations, hand injuries, TBI and PTSD. The Creative Forces program provides creative arts therapies at 11 military hospitals, bases and local communities for military members, Veterans and their families.
Last year, National Memorial Day Concert’s longtime co-host Gary Sinise and his R.I.S.E. foundation presented the Avila family with a new “Smart Home,” specially adapted to suit Luis’s physical needs.
Captain Luis Avila’s story will be featured Sunday, May 28, during the National Memorial Day concert on PBS. The concert features acclaimed actors Joe Mantegna, Laurence Fishburne and Gary Sinise and an all-star lineup of actors and musicians, along with top pops conductor Jack Everly and the National Symphony Orchestra. Show segments include a tribute to the last surviving member of the Doolittle Raiders, who flew the daring bombing mission over Japan after Pearl Harbor; the story of the sacrifices made by Captain Luis Avila and his wife, Claudia, as they courageously face life-changing injuries incurred from an IED bomb blast; and the healing journey of a Gold Star family from the Vietnam era who reach out to support grieving families from recent conflicts. This tribute to our military airs live from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol before an audience of hundreds of thousands, a broadcast audience of millions and to our troops around the world via American Forces Network.
The concert will also be live-streamed on Facebook Live and www.pbs.org/national-memorial-day-concert and available as video on demand for a limited time, May 28 to June 10.
This article was submitted to VAntage Point by the production team for the 2017 National Memorial Day Concert.