Growing up, Richard Casper always knew he wanted to serve others. When he was a high school student, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 happened and he realized how he would fulfill this calling.
“I had this drive inside 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 special duty to guard then-President George W. Bush at Camp David. Once he was cleared 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 ready to do my job.”
In the first four months, his Humvee was hit by IEDs four separate times. During one mission, his good friend and gunner, Luke Yepsen, was shot by a sniper and died by his side.
“It was really hard to understand what happened because we went to work the next day like nothing happened,” Casper said. “When you’re in the infantry, they have to take out 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 struggled with the transition back home. He began failing the college business courses he had enrolled in and developed crippling anxiety.
“I couldn’t do it,” Casper said. “But I knew he was smart. You had to have a certain IQ to protect the president.”
He went to his local VA hospital and learned that he had post-traumatic stress disorder, degenerative disc disease and tinnitus, among other medical issues.
“They didn’t know much about PTS in 2007,” Casper said. “They told me I wouldn’t be able to learn new things.”
Casper decided to change his major to art, thinking it would be an easy career to complete.
“I didn’t want to do it, I felt 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 tombstone. He had chosen red for the grass, and when his classmates saw it, they described how it made them feel and why they thought he used certain colors.
“They said you wore red because you saw him die. Or you wore 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 later realized he wanted to share the healing power of the arts with other struggling veterans.
In 2013 he founded CreatiVets. The nonprofit organization provides immersive visual art and songwriting programs to wounded combat veterans.
The Songwriting Program is a free three-day trip to Nashville, Tennessee, where veterans are paired with renowned songwriters and musicians to write and record a personal song.
They write in the dressing rooms backstage at the Grand Ole Opry. For most veterans, it’s their first time writing music. The next day, they recorded their song in a studio with a singer 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 her life experience go from 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 tell them, it’s easier to tell your story once you’ve created your artwork because it’s not going to be about you,” Casper said. “You will talk about your artwork and focus on it.”
For Casper, his mission is to save lives and find those veterans who could benefit most from participating. That is why we aim 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 say, ‘I’m going to get on that plane.’
To date, the organization has helped more than 900 veterans. Through this work, Casper says he has found his purpose and a way to honor his friend.
“Every time a veteran gets saved, I say, ‘Luke just saved somebody else,'” Casper said. “I just know he would look down and just say, ‘You’re doing what you have to do. Now you’re really living for both of us”.
CNN’s Meg Dunn spoke with Casper about his work. Below is an edited version of their conversation.
CNN: What led you to enlist in the US Marines?
Richard Casper: There were many reasons for me to join the military. Most important was this sense of service. The other part was that I’m from a town of 1,100. My three older brothers have been to jail and prison. My dad doesn’t think he graduated from high school, but he did get his GED. My mother graduated from high school and worked in a factory all her life. We grew up on food stamps. And I said, “I don’t know how to get out of this town without the military.” So all of those things combined is what really made this decision easy for me.
CNN: Your organization has a deal with a record company. How has this helped to expand the work?
Casper: We won’t be able to help every veteran, but our music could touch every veteran. We have reached a management deal with Big Machine Records. It is the largest independent record label in the country. And now we are premiering music with some of their artists who are lending their voices to the song. We’ve had over four million streams of our music.
So when you hear a very different voice, like Justin Moore, and you try to search for the song, you see that the artist is actually CreatiVets with Justin Moore. And then you’re like, “Well, what is CreatiVets?” And you look us up and find out we’ll pay for your flights, food, lodging in Nashville to do the same thing that veteran did. So we’re legitimately reaching the homes of veterans who don’t want help, and they’re getting so excited about it that they’re now coming to our programs.
CNN: What are your hopes for the future of CreatiVets?
Casper: I think CreatiVets is now in a place where we could help design military programs. As you transition and learn how to write a resume and go on a job interview, I think there should be a parallel that helps you with your emotional intelligence and tells you that it’s okay to be able to write songs, make art .
So, I want to create a resume that you have to follow as you go out. May they understand that no matter where they go in life, they could use art and music to heal. You could be out in the farthest boonies; you still have an outlet where you don’t need other people. You can do it yourself through art and pull it off. That is my great hope is that one day we could be in the military as a transition point.
Do you want to get involved? Take a look the CreatiVets website and see how to help.
To donate to CreatiVets through GoFundMe, click here