From the battlefields of Iraq to the music scene of Nashville, how a Navy veteran uses art to heal
“I had that urge in me,” he said. “I joined the Marine Corps infantry. … I wanted to be the first person to go overseas and fight.”
During basic training, he was selected for a special task guarding then-President George W. Bush at Camp David. Once he received clearance and completed this 14-month assignment, he was still determined to deploy.
“When I landed in Iraq, I was ready to die,” Casper said. “I was just ready to do my job.”
In the first four months, his Humvee was hit by IEDs four times. During one mission, his good friend and gunner, Luke Yepsen, was shot by a sniper and died beside him.
“It was so hard to figure out what happened because we’re going to work the next day as if nothing had happened,” Casper said. “When you’re in the infantry, they have to rid you of all your vulnerabilities. They have to, because (otherwise) you’re not going to survive the war.”
Casper was forever changed after serving in Iraq, and he struggled with the halfway house. He began to fail the college business courses he enrolled in and developed crippling anxiety.
“I couldn’t do it,” Casper said. “But I knew I was smart. You had to have a certain IQ to keep the president.”
He went to his local VA hospital and learned that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, degenerative disc disease and tinnitus, among other medical issues.
“They didn’t know much about PTS in 2007,” Casper said. “I was told that I couldn’t learn new things.”
Casper decided to change his major to art, thinking it would be an easy degree for him to get.
“I didn’t want to do it, I felt like I had to do it,” Casper said. “And then art changed my life.”
One of his first projects was a pastel drawing of his friend Luke’s gravestone. He had chosen red for the grass, and when his classmates saw it, they described how they felt and why they thought he used certain colors.
“They were saying you used red because you saw him die. Or you used red because you were angry,” Casper said. “They understood me without me having to say a word.”
Casper had found an outlet for his pain and he later realized he wanted to share the healing power of the arts with other struggling veterans.
The Songwriting Program is a free three-day trip to Nashville, Tennessee, where veterans are paired with accomplished songwriters and musicians to write and record a personal song.
They write from the backstage boxes of the Grand Ole Opry. For most veterans, this is their first time writing music. The next day, they record their song in the studio with a vocalist and session musicians.
“After writing this song, they’re on cloud nine because they finally had the words to say what they’ve never been able to say before,” Casper said. “It’s amazing to see their life experience go from just a story I tell to a song I could share with everyone.”
The visual arts program is a free, multi-week program at an art school, such as the School of the Art Institute of Chicago or the University of Southern California. Veterans spend time learning different mediums and working on a final project.
“I try to explain to them that it will be easier to tell your story once you’ve created your artwork, because you’re not going to talk about yourself,” Casper said. “You’re going to talk about your artwork and focus on it.”
For Casper, his mission is to save lives and find the veterans who could benefit the most from their participation. That’s why it aims to make each program as attractive as possible.
“How hard would it be to turn down a free trip to Nashville, Tennessee, to write backstage at the Grand Ole Opry with (a hit) artist or songwriter?” he said. “You won’t. You can be in the worst place of your life and be like, ‘I’m going to jump on that plane.'”
To date, the organization has helped over 900 veterans. Through this work, Casper says he found his purpose and a way to honor his friend.
“Whenever a veteran gets saved, I’m like, ‘Luke just saved someone else,’” Casper said. “I just know he would look down just saying, ‘You’re doing what you’re supposed to do. You really live for both of us now. “”
CNN’s Meg Dunn spoke with Casper about her work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
NC: What led you to enlist in the US Marines?
Richard Caspar: There were many reasons for me to join the army. The most important thing was this sense of service. The other part was that I come from a city of 1,100 people. My three older siblings have all been in jail and jail. I don’t think my dad graduated from high school, but he got his GED. My mother graduated from high school and worked in a factory all her life. We grew up on food stamps. And I thought, “I don’t know how to get out of this town without the army.” So all of those things combined are what really made this decision easy for me.
NC: Your organization has an agreement with a record company. How has this contributed to expanding the work?
To break : We won’t be able to help all veterans, but our music could touch all veterans. We have entered into an administrative agreement with Big Machine Records. It is the largest independent record label in the country. And now we’re releasing music with some of their artists putting their voice to the song. We’ve had over four million streams of our music.
So when you hear a very distinct voice, like Justin Moore, and try to search for the song, you see that the artist is actually CreatiVets featuring Justin Moore. And then you’re like, “Well, what is CreatiVets?” And you search us and find out that we will pay for your flights, your food, your accommodation in Nashville to do the same thing as this veteran. So we’re legitimately reaching the homes of veterans who don’t want help, and they’re so excited about it that they’re now coming to our programs.
NC: What are your hopes for the future of CreatiVets?
To break : I think CreatiVets is now at a place where we could help design programs that are in the military. As you transition and learn how to write a resume and go to a job interview, I think there should be a parallel in there that helps you with your emotional intelligence and says it’s it’s good to be able to write songs, to make art.
So, I want to create a program that you have to follow at the exit. That they understand that no matter where they go in life, they could use art and music to heal themselves. You might be in the furthest boonies; you still have an outlet where you don’t need other people. You can do it yourself through art and get it out. That’s my big hope is that one day we could be in the military as a transition point.