For many veterans, returning home after war is a challenging ordeal. Numerous men and women who have served our country suffer from post-traumatic stress (PTS) and struggle to get reintroduced into society, some even commit suicide.
In a 2013 study, the Department of Veteran Affairs reports that 22 veterans each day commit suicide. CreatiVets, a non-profit organization that aims to offer relief and healing to veterans through songwriting, visual arts, music and creative writing, hopes to combat depression, PTS and suicide.
Richard Casper is the co-founder of CreatiVets and learned the struggles firsthand when he returned home after one tour in the Marine Corps Infantry in Iraq where his humvee was blown up four different times and his best friend died beside him. Casper himself suffered through three concussions, tore cartilage in his chest and after returning home learned he had brain damage from a traumatic brain injury.
“I had a lot of stuff inside me that I couldn’t get out after the war about my buddy who died,” Casper tells Sounds Like Nashville. “I started writing a lot about it. Not a song yet, but I was in a creative writing class so I was writing about it.”
When Casper returned from Iraq, he enrolled at a community college in Illinois and a friend suggested he try his hand at songwriting. Soon after, he got accepted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and to make money while studying, Casper worked at Joe’s Bar. It was there that he was introduced to several songwriters through the venue’s songwriter series, all the while, he continued to write on the side. As he explains, his anxieties and depression minimized through songwriting and one night after a writer’s round at the venue he approached songwriter Mark Irwin (Alan Jackson, Tim McGraw) and shared his story and asked if he traveled to Nashville if Irwin would write with him. Irwin agreed and soon after Casper took a trip to Music City and wrote a song about his experience in Iraq called “One Night In Iraq.”
After his first writing session, Casper knew he wanted to find a way to help other veterans. He invited his friend who lost a leg and was severely burned from a vehicle borne Improvised Explosive Device (IED) to Nashville and they wrote a song in May of 2013 with Blackjack Billy. It was during this co-write that CreatiVets was born and was founded as a nonprofit that July.
Since 2013, nearly 30 veterans have come to Nashville to write with songwriters like Darryl Worley, Johnny Bulford, Lance Carpenter and Erik Dylan. Casper serves as the nonprofit’s co-writer and tour guide as he spends three days with each veteran. The day before the veteran sits down to write his or her story, Casper takes them to a writer’s round and tells them to listen to why the songwriters created their songs.
“Days prior, I’m on the phone with them prepping them about what the song’s going to be about so when we go into the writing room they know exactly what the song’s going to be. We’re not trying to write a hit song,” he stresses. “We’re trying to write their story and turn it into a song. If it becomes a hit that’s awesome, but that’s not what we’re doing it for. When we’re done, the guitar that we wrote the song with I give to the veteran so that we can get them to hopefully keep learning how to play guitar on their own and to write more music about what they went through and give them a new tool to help with the PTSD.”
Casper shares that the success of the program lies within the fact that there are two disabled veterans in the same room writing together. He is able to talk to the veteran and get him or her to open up about what they went through because often, Casper had also dealt with the same struggles. He adds that 70% of the writing sessions involve the veteran telling the co-writers something he has held in the entire time he was in service.
“This program doesn’t feel like therapy. It doesn’t feel like you’re going into a program. You’re coming to Nashville to write with a No. 1 songwriter about the things you went through in war. Just tell your story. That’s what gets them out here,” he adds. “Everyone’s story, no matter how horrible it is, has a positive because you get to tell that story to someone who’s relating to you. If you were thinking the same way that person’s thinking, and you’re both going down a bad road, the moment you speak about it, he relates, knows he’s not alone and then they save his life. That’s what this is all about: helping people through our songs, people who are stuck in their houses and don’t want to leave, they hear it and it helps them reach out for help.”
While CreatiVets has directly helped numerous veterans as well as touched Nashville songwriters and others who have heard about the program, Casper says founding the non-profit has also saved his life.
“My anxiety was so bad I couldn’t even talk to my speech teacher. I couldn’t even do a speech in class. I had to do it one on one with my speech teacher in college. That’s how bad my anxiety and depression was,” he admits. “But after songwriting, I performed that song [‘One Night In Iraq’] in front of 1,500 people. That’s the transition that comes from writing things in your heart. It helped me out. It saved my life. That’s why I started this program.”
For more on CreatiVets, to apply for the program or volunteer to be a songwriter, visit their website at creativets.org.