Enabling veterans to turn trauma into hope
By Sue Baldani
On September 11, 2001, Richard Casper was a high school student, and the events of that day would change the course of his life forever. “It inspired me to go into the Marine Corps, so two weeks after graduation, I was on a bus going to boot camp,” he says.
While in the service, he spent time guarding then-President of the United States, George W. Bush. He also went to war. “I was in Fallujah, Iraq, for seven months,” says Richard. During that time, he was badly injured and his buddy, Luke Yepsen, made the ultimate sacrifice.
After leaving the Marines, it was hard for Richard to transition back into civilian life. “I couldn’t do a lot because my anxiety and depression were so bad.”
It was at this time, while living in Bloomington, Illinois, that he randomly found an art and music program at a community college. He says it’s what ultimately saved his life. “They started teaching me about art and how to use color to symbolize emotions. Being able to express myself without talking about what was wrong with me, and being able to evoke emotion from others who would then understand me, was powerful.”
After receiving his associate’s degree, Richard applied to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “Through these classes, my brain was remapping and restructuring all these negative situations into a positive because I was turning them into art pieces.”
He then expanded into songwriting. “I still had an issue talking about Luke, and I thought, ‘What if I could write a song so people would know his story?’”
Eventually, Richard hooked up with Mark Irwin, who has written songs for Billy Ray Cyrus, Alan Jackson, Blake Shelton, Taylor Swift, and Tim McGraw. “I traveled to Nashville and wrote a song with him within three hours,” he says. “I was blown away.”
He wanted to bring these healing tools to other veterans, and along with Linda Tarrson,founded CreatiVets in 2013. “It’s strictly for wounded veterans – someone who’s been to a combat zone and has mental, emotional, moral, or physical injuries from that experience,” says Richard.
Today, the nonprofit has helped veterans across 48 states in both its music and art programs. With its four-day music program, vets are paired with mentors and work with accomplished songwriters and music artists backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. Once finished, these songs are recorded at the Rukkus Room and OMNIsound Studios.
“Each veteran thinks they’re alone in their fight, but as they hear each other’s songs, they feel connected,” he says. “They get to heal together.” They also have their photographs taken by Jason Myers, a well-known photographer who donates his time.
A majority of veterans with serious mental-health issues become isolated and never seek help. “In order to reach them in their homes, we’ve partnered with Big Machine Records to release our veterans’ songs.” These songs are sung by renowned artists like Vince Gill and Justin Moore.
Its three-week art programs are held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Belmont University, University of Chicago, University of Southern California, and Virginia Commonwealth University. Tuition, food and housing is completely covered and like regular students, the vets have access to wood working, ceramics and other classes. With the help of the teachers, who are esteemed artists, they create art pieces that reflects something they’ve been through.
Greg Pihs, a Marine from Chapel Hill who served alongside Richard and Luke at one point, knows how valuable these programs are to veterans. He wrote a song with CreatiVets about a situation he could never verbalize, and it helped him to finally process his pain. “For the first time in my life, I had a voice, and that was life-changing for me,” he says. “It greatly helped me over the last three years.” Today, Greg is a mentor in the program as well as a successful businessman.
CreatiVets is always in need of volunteers, especially in Nashville, where they have a new facility to hold classes. “We need people who are willing to volunteer and share their artistic skills, whether it be painting, drawing, jewelry making or something else.”
Like any nonprofit, it also needs funding. “We have more veterans on our waiting list than we have money coming in,” says Richard. “In order to support them, we need to grow.”
To learn more and help support CreatiVets, go to CreatiVets.org.
Written for Brentwood Lifestyle magazine in Tennessee.