By Bill Theobald, Gannett Washington Bureau
The Army private fiddled with the bandage covering the wrist where his left hand used to be and joined Nashville country star Mark Wills in singing Wills' hit song, "19-something."
The young soldier, recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center after losing a hand to a rocket-propelled grenade in Afghanistan, smiled shyly as Wills teased him about his singing.
Such moments define the Musicians On Call program and are the reason Wills visited Walter Reed on Monday to aid the program's bid to start a Washington chapter early next year.
A fundraiser for the new chapter was set for later Monday evening at the Recording Industry Association of America's Washington headquarters. Reps. Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood and Jim Cooper of Nashville were scheduled to attend as honorary co-chairs of the new chapter.
Musicians On Call, with chapters in Nashville, New York City, Miami and Philadelphia, brings volunteer performers into hospital rooms to provide patients with the healing power of live music.
Wills, a veteran performer who has visited Walter Reed several times and taken multiple trips to Iraq and Afghanistan, said the one-on-one performances are "a lot more nerve-wracking" than playing before a large audience.
"It's not like you're guaranteed to have a country fan," he said while walking between rooms in a ward filled with amputees.
And the patients, not the performers, are center stage.
"This is their world. This stage is theirs," Wills said.
Earlier, Wills and guitarist Kevin Key sang "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer" for a wounded staff sergeant - he lost his left leg after stepping on an improvised explosive device - and the sergeant's wife and young daughter. The girl said her favorite performer is Justin Bieber, but by the end of Wills' short visit he was No. 2 on her list.
"It means a lot, it means a lot to us," the soldier said as Wills said goodbye. Names of the soldiers and marines Wills sang for were kept private.
Scott Welch, a Nashville-based manager and board member of Musicians on Call, said Verizon has donated $10,000 for the Washington chapter and the Academy of Country Music gave $15,000.
One of the last patients Wills visited was with the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell - one of more than a dozen 101st Airborne soldiers recovering at Walter Reed and at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Musicians on Call makes more than 36 visits per week to hospitals in the four cities and has brought music to an estimated 250,000 patients since it was founded in 1999.
"When you bring your art to them," Wills said, "it makes it more special."