When Marte Byrne was deployed to Iraq in 2004, he received a guitar from his mother for his birthday. Little did he know that this one birthday present would soon become an idea that would inspire a nonprofit organization, aptly named Operation Happy Note, that has now sent over 4,500 instruments to deployed soldiers across the world.
Co-founder, Barbara Baker, explains that Operation Happy Note is "a nonprofit organization that sends music instruments to our deployed troops, the purpose to relieve stress and raise morale."
The idea came to her and her husband Steven when Byrne received several requests for guitars from friends in his unit after receiving his present. The unit was very excited by the arrival of that first guitar and people's desire for their own soon caused Byrne to relay the requests back to his mother.
Baker explains that "at that time, we had a little Mom and Pop music store and we decided that we couldn't keep taking guitars off the wall, and Steven ... said 'let's have a little fundraiser and we can send some more instruments, more guitars, to his unit.'"
While they thought it would be a one-time project, Operation Happy Note was far from being just that. After attracting a lot of interest from their community and national press, they received enough donations of money and instruments to set themselves up as a nonprofit organization, and continue to ship instruments to deployed soldiers.
"We were sending out 50, 60, at one point, 90 guitars in one day," says Baker. But soon they started sending more than just guitars. Baker says they've sent "mandolins, violins, banjos, all kinds of horns, keyboards. We've even sent bagpipes, accordions, tons of harmonicas, kazoos, anything that people donate to us, any type of musical instrument that is donates to us, we'll send it to the troops."
Within the package that is sent, Operation Happy Note also includes any accessories that might be needed for the instrument. For a guitar, for example, they also send along a guitar strap and a tuner, as well as a set of DVDs that teach the recipient how to play the guitar.
Byrne recalls the excitement around the guitars he and his friends received in his unit. "We would have a drawing, everyone would put their name in a hat, we'd pull a name out and that person would win ... When the guitar came, everybody would get together so there'd be ten, fifteen people all together to see the guitar. We'd take pictures and laugh and joke around."
The camaraderie that is already built up by the circumstances in which these men and women find themselves is only increased by the addition of a musical instrument. "It was like Christmastime every time an instrument arrived and someone got to open it," says Byrne.
The instruments also provide an excellent distraction for the recipient. It means learning a new skill for those who have never played before or being able to continue with something that, while not new, can be very relaxing for those who can already play.
Byrne explains that "getting an instrument in a situation like that took your mind off the day-to-day things and created more of a fun environment where it wasn't so serious and everybody had a good time."
The goal for Operation Happy Note is, most importantly, to continue to collect as many instruments as possible to send to the deployed soldiers, but the organization is also working on two programs within that. The first is the Injured Heroes program, to benefit returned wounded veterans and help with their reintegration into their community through music.
The second is the Music for Military children program. This will provide instruments for the children of soldiers to ensure they are able to learn music either when their parents are away or once they have returned.
This was inspired by a friend of Operation Happy Note's Executive Director, Kelly Randolph. Randolph saw his friend, a recently returned veteran, budgeting and deciding which meals to skip so he could afford a violin for his daughter.
Randolph was determined to make sure his friend, and others, who had put their lives at risk for others would not have to go hungry to ensure their children received important musical education.
"Music's very important to everybody," says Randolph. "It's soothing to the soul. It heals, it makes life seem easier for everybody whether they play or not. Just listening to music is a lot of people's form of winding down."
There are always more requests for musical instruments than there are instruments to send but Operation Happy Note does its best to ensure that as many people as possible can benefit from their gifts of music.
Randolph explains that "chaplains get a lot of them for worship where they open up community rooms and these people can come in and play. One guitar can help four or five people that way."
"I couldn't imagine as a musician myself going a year without an instrument in a place filled with such anger and frustration and trauma. So why not give those guys something that I get to do everyday. They're doing something to give me the ability to do what I do every day, I should give back."
Even though the idea started from one loving gesture towards one person, it has grown to affect countless lives and bring happiness to people across the globe. The letters and emails that Operation Happy Note receives are just one way they know they are making a very significant difference to both soldiers and their families.
"It is very emotional. It's very satisfying," says Baker. And that's why she keeps working hard to collect as many instruments as possible: the most important thing is to help the "wonderful men and women that are protecting our country and we're here ... doing what we're doing because they're doing what they're doing and we're all very proud of all of them."