GIVING PURPOSE TO THE VOICES
”I have this story that I need to get off my chest. If I come to Nashville, will you help me tell my story?” - Richard Casper to songwriter, Mark Irwin
Nashville since 2015
Meet Richard Casper and you won’t have any idea that he suffers from a chronic brain injury and has endured post-traumatic stress, depression, and severe anxiety. The six-foot-five-inch tall chiseled Marine makes a striking first impression and has all the external appearance of a Hollywood leading man. But beneath the golden smile and muscular frame lies a past riddled with pain and loss. Through a series of events and relationships, including one with a former U.S. President, the 31-year-old soldier-turned-artist has used music and the arts to create CreatiVets, an organization that is giving a purpose and a voice to veterans suffering from combat-related trauma.
The story begins, as many do with Marines Casper’s age, on September 11th, 2001. Casper looked on from his classroom in Washburn, Illinois as the towers fell and decided then and there that he was going to join the Corps. He enlisted three years later, and immediately stood out amongst his peers. He was selected to join a small group that protected President George W. Bush at Camp David.
In 2006, after his request to be on the front line was granted, Casper deployed to Iraq. While patrolling with a group of soldiers that included his best friend, 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Luke Yepsen, they were ambushed by gunfire. Yepsen was killed right next to Casper.1 Later that winter, Richard was hit by an improvised explosive device four times, sustaining multiple concussions which resulted in a brain injury that sent him back home to Illinois.
Back home after Iraq, Richard was suffering from post-traumatic stress and he struggled to cope with the loss of his best friend. He began to find an outlet for the pain while attending classes at The Art Institute of Chicago. Through painting and sculpting, he was able to express emotions that he wasn’t able to share verbally. He also knew he needed to find a way to tell Luke’s story.
Casper found the inspiration for what would become his life’s work while working the door at a bar in Chicago. “I worked (in Chicago) at Joe’s Bar when I was going to school,” he recalled. “Songwriters would come in and play, and I knew at the time that I was trying to write my own story about my buddy who was shot and killed, but I just couldn’t get it right.” Mark Irwin, the acclaimed Nashville songwriter, played in his bar one night and Casper approached him after his set. “I have this story that I need to get off my chest,” he told Irwin. “If I come to Nashville, will you help me tell my story?”
Irwin accepted, and Casper drove down and the two wrote a song together. “It changed the way I thought about what I was doing,” said Casper. “I thought, if this is their job, and they can do it like that (snapping his fingers), why can’t I help other veterans do it.” In July 2013, along with co-founder Linda Tarrson, Richard started CreatiVets. Though the non-profit organization is based in Chicago, the year-round programs run out of Nashville where Casper resides.
CreatiVets budgets for two sessions per month, paying for veterans to travel to Nashville to therapeutically collaborate with the some of the best songwriters in the industry. Casper explains that he found peace through putting his thoughts down on paper, and he hopes that veterans can experience the same healing through continued artistic expression. “CreatiVets isn’t going to heal you,” he says, “it’s going to give you the tools you need to heal yourself.”
In 2017, TIME Magazine named Richard to its prestigious list of Next Generation Leaders. He was honored by the George W. Bush Presidential Center, and was invited there to spend time one-on-one with the former President. The publicity that followed has helped to give CreatiVets a nationwide audience. New donors and support have allowed Casper to set up writing programs at the Art Institute of Chicago and at Virginia Commonwealth University. “We pay for the veterans’ tuition, housing, and food for all three weeks and it’s fully accredited. Veterans who never even touched art before get to become alumni of the school, and learn how to use art to tell their story.” He says it’s his goal to have this program inserted in every college in the country so that “any veteran can go and use music and art therapy to heal.”
Richard Casper, now married to wife Ashley, continues to build the momentum of CreatiVets in the Music City. With the name of his best friend tattooed on his arm, he continues to honor his memory by changing the lives of suffering veterans, just as Luke helped to change his. “Knowing that there are so many veterans out there who don’t think art or music is an option…I just want to give them that voice.”
1 Melissa Chan, A Way To Talk About It, time.com, 2017, http://time.com/veteran-war-art-healing/