When he came home from the war in Iraq 10 years ago, Jason Sagebiel, a scout-sniper and sergeant in the U.S. Marines, knew something wasn’t right. He was losing weight rapidly, getting lightheaded after going up only a few steps, and without knowing it, was slurring his speech.
It took many tests — and even a diagnosis of parasites that he treated with medication to help him gain his weight back – to find that he had bleeding in his brainstem.
“Looking back, we finally made the connection,” Sagebiel said. “What we know about brain injuries now is they usually don’t happen from one occurrence, they usually happen from multiple occurrences.”
There are a few instances he can connect to the injuries. During one mission, an angry group he and his team had earlier disarmed and broken up came back and in a protest, he was hit in the face with a brick. Another time toward the end of his deployment, a 13,000-pound blast wave hit him while he was participating in an explosive ordnance disposal, when bombs that are found are blown up to be disposed.
“It’s like being in the Pacific Ocean when you get hit by a really big wave, and it just sort of tosses your body,” Sagebiel said. “I was like a rag doll. The wave hits me and then it bounces off of the air hangar and hits me coming back the other way, and it recompressed and hit me a third time, so it was like three blast waves. And that one left me dizzy for days.”
Through more tests, the doctors had found that he wasn’t keeping things in his working memory long enough for them to be stored in his short-term memory. Although he was being helped to restore his memory skills, he found that studying the science and psychology of music and thinking himself was helping.
“In many ways I was my own therapist,” Sagebiel said.
Sagebiel, who just celebrated his 10th anniversary back in the States, now shares what he learned in his own studio, Sage Music, in Long Island City, where he also lives. The Texas native and other instructors teach more than 200 students, who vary in age and experience.
Evan Murphy, a musician who performs with the band Tenafly Rye, knew he needed to take lessons with Sagebiel when the two talked about Murphy’s hand injury and Sagebiel told him about all of the techniques he could do instead.
“He’s unbelievably precise in his techniques and his understanding of music, guitar and the human body,” Murphy said. “His goal is to continue to teach people the correct ways to play guitar so each generation builds on itself and teaches better.”
Sagebiel first picked up the guitar when he was 13 years old and sick at home. He kept up with it through the years, going to school and then finally opening his own studio in 2012. He also comes from a family where his two younger sisters became Marines, and also play music.
“It was kind of sad when he came back. He wasn’t how we remembered him. You could tell something was off — that was hard,” his sister Amanda, who also did a tour in Iraq, said. “There were a couple of years that were pretty scary.”
Growing up with him, she said, she thought everything he did was the best. This is no different.
“I think it’s absolutely amazing —using music is an absolutely fantastic thing,” she said. “He’s come a really long way.”
But Sagebiel still keeps the memories of Iraq with him. It was there that he picked the oud, a Middle Eastern instrument similar to the guitar. Through people who became good friends, including well-known oud players, he was able to learn the instrument.
“Iraq in many ways is like my second home,” he said. “So much of my life, even for that short time, happened there.”
An oud was even especially made for him, and he occasionally plays it for concerts.
“Music therapy is a very specific thing, but if you step back, I think music is therapy,” Sagebiel said. “I find in many ways music has gotten me either emotionally through certain times of my life, whether it was after the war or after being ick as a kid, and also cognitively. It pushes people to do things.”