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Chicago Group Flies Veterans to Nashville, Has Songs Written Just for Them

By Kyla Gardner | October 3, 2014 5:38am | Updated on October 3, 2014 7:31am
The Great American Co-Write: Episode 1
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YouTube/Ray Casper

CHICAGO — We all have those songs.

In the the pain of heartbreak, the regret of decisions made, or the depths of grief, lyrics that offer the smallest comfort can feel deeply personal.

Who hasn't imagined the words were written just for them?

War veterans involved in one Chicago nonprofit don't have to imagine. This time, the lyrics were written for them.

Through CreatiVets, veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or the transition home are flown, all expenses paid, to Nashville, where they work with professional songwriters to put their pain into song.

Kyla Gardner says many veterans suffering from PTSD don't respond to traditional therapy:

CreatiVets was started by Richard Casper, a School of the Art Institute of Chicago alumnus and Iraq War veteran who found healing through his sculpture courses and guitar.

 CreatiVets — with one "V" — flies struggling war veterans to Nashville to help them start to heal through songwriting.
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"It gave me whatever I was missing back," Casper said. "There's something so magical about healing yourself in that way, and veterans should have a chance to know art is an option."

"Scars that you can't see"

"The stars and bars fly in my yard
but I still bleed red from my purple heart
It's a wounded man you're looking at
that ain't been the same since I been back

— "Falling Through the Cracks"

Jeremy Janssen says he's "not your typical PTSD guy."

The horrors of war weren't foreign to him: He'd had friends die, and his unit was hit by an explosion, leaving everyone badly injured.

But for Janssen, war was "99 percent boredom and 1 percent sheer terror."

It was coming home from Iraq that was most difficult.

In the explosion, Janssen broke his back and four ribs, and suffered third-degree burns, shrapnel wounds and a collapsed lung.

"I was one of the better ones," he said. "Nothing compared to the other guys. They lost limbs. ... That's why I don't complain too much."

But Janssen said he was forgotten by the military after being injured, and felt treated like a soldier who purposely injured himself to get off the front lines.

Flying into O'Hare in the sweatpants and T-shirt he was given, not a uniform, Janssen said there was no hero's welcome like he witnessed for friends, just a wish of "good luck."

"Of course my parents were there for me, but when you come home, you're expecting things to be one way, and they aren't, and it just sucks," Janssen said. "I was disappointed and discouraged for a while. It just gets you down."

At his parents' house in Ransom, Ill., Janssen needed help to recover physically from his war wounds. He missed his independence. It was hard to concentrate, as the blast had left his brain, as he described, "scrambled."

He still suffers from seizures and has no feeling in his right arm.

CreatiVets — that's with only one "V" relies on referrals to find the veterans it flies to Nashville, as a lot of veterans "know people who they think are struggling, who have been through a lot of crap," Casper said.

Janssen was skeptical of the program — he hates country music and had a bad experience with traditional therapy — but agreed to fly down in December 2013 to meet with songwriters Matt Mason, from the "Nashville Star" reality TV show, and Lance Carpenter.

He quickly bonded with Casper as he got an informal tour of the town.

"It's like with any Marine: You know that he went through the war, too. It's like being with a buddy right from the get-go," Janssen said. "That's how it is with guys like us."

Janssen told his story to the writers and watched them bounce ideas back and forth for an afternoon, ultimately writing the song "Falling Through the Cracks."

"I didn't lose a leg or an arm/but I've got scars that you can't see," goes one line.

After going through CreatiVets, some of the veterans take up the guitar to learn their song, and then continue writing. Casper posts tutorials for the veterans to play their songs on his YouTube channel.

For Janssen, taking up the instrument wasn't possible, but the trip left a strong impression on him, and gained him a new friend in Casper.

"It's just a different process than sitting you in a room with a head-shrinker, and they tell you what's wrong with you," Janssen said. "It's seeing the creative process in front of you, talking with them and seeing people listen to your story and turn it into another form."

Now living in Mackinaw, Illinois, Janssen keeps busy with his job for an energy company and raising his 3-year-old son, Evan, with his wife.

He doesn't have time to be bitter anymore, he said.

"A few more people to back them up"

Difficulty returning home after war isn't uncommon.

Eleven to 20 percent of veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars suffer from PTSD, estimates the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, and the veteran suicide rate might be at more than 22 per day.

CreatiVets has helped 10 veterans write songs, including Casper.

Whatever they were battling, each veteran found the songwriting therapeutic in some way, Janssen said.

"I've talked to a few of the other guys. All of them come from different places, different" war experiences, Janssen said. "All of them say the same thing: That was really cool and helped me."

There's a father, Tommy Houston, who wrestles with the guilt of being away from family.

"So much time went by/And I know it wasn't fair," goes "Yellow Balloon," a song Houston wrote for his daughter Emily, which reduced her to tears when he debuted it for her upon returning home from Nashville.

There's a member of the Blackfoot nation, Jonas Ridesatthedoor, whose song "Warrior" helped his wife understand a bit of what he went through.

"I turned 21 in the heat of Iraq/My family prayin' that I'd make it back/I was young and naive and not thinkin' 'bout that," the lyrics go.

Ridesatthedoor's wife Maegan told Casper in an interview for CreatiVets' blog that he plays the song often since returning from Nashville.

"He will now have something he can play during times when he is struggling. In that sense, the song has provided another avenue for healing," Maegan said.

The biggest roadblock CreatiVets has hit has been funding. So far, donations have paid for the trips, which cost about $1,500 each, Casper said.

CrossFit Beverly will host a fundraiser beginning at 8 a.m. Saturday. A silent auction with items from local and national businesses will end around noon. The event costs a $20 entry fee and another $20 for a CrossFit for CreatiVets T-shirt. Owner John McMullen said no CrossFit experience is necessary to participate in workouts throughout the day.

Another fundraiser will take place at a Peoria CrossFit on Oct. 18, a gym owned by a veteran who went to Nashville with CreatiVets. The nonprofit also accepts donations directly through its website.

"Their heart's in the right place, they just need a few more people to back them up," Janssen said.

"I was a recluse"

Though war was rough, coming home from his tour in Iraq wasn't too bad for Casper. The marine enrolled at Heartland Community College in Downstate Normal and planned to study business. With some time to relax before classes began, he was feeling good and looking toward the future.

But it didn't stay that way.

When he got back into the classroom, Casper found he had trouble concentrating and doing math, a subject he'd been a natural at before. At the same time, he was beginning to see the symptoms of PTSD take hold of him.

It's hard to imagine for those who meet Casper now, who only know him as charismatic and outgoing.

Richard Casper Plays "Falling Through the Cracks"
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YouTube/Ray Casper

"I get a lot of people coming through my office," said Paul Coffey, vice provost at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. But Casper stood out: "He was really charismatic, really engaging, and fully committed to his mission."

Casper's ease with people is also clear from his role as a liaison between songwriters and veterans in Nashville.

"Without Richard, I might have held back on some things, he really made the mood right," Ridesatthedoor said about his songwriting experience.

But in 2010, just thinking about leaving his house made Casper vomit.

"I was prom king, I was class clown in high school ... I was able to achieve things when I was in the spotlight," Casper said. "In my head, I was like, 'Why is this happening, why can't you just get out there?' It would lead to depression. I was a recluse for the longest time."

Casper made it to class when he had to, and passed a required speech course by performing one-on-one for his professor.

He suffered headaches and memory problems, and learned those and his newfound troubles with math stemmed from a brain injury, most likely from one of the three concussions he suffered from IED explosions in Iraq.

The left side — the analytical and logical side — of his brain was damaged, but he began taking art classes and his right brain — the creative and intuitive side — took over.

When a recruiter came from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, he knew he had to pursue art.

The school "agreed to give me a chance, and I'm so glad they did because that’s what saved my life and really pulled me into the art world," Casper said.

"I have PTSD"

On the first day of class at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the anxieties, the nausea and the panic came back. Casper considered fleeing the school's hallways.

But he recognized a student he had met at orientation.

"I almost couldn’t even walk in," Casper said. "But he walked up, and I was like, 'I have PTSD. I was injured in Iraq. I just need a person to know this before I could go in here.'"

Just needing one person to know — it was the same line of thinking that would inform his sculpture. If he could get his pain and trauma outside of himself, he could move forward. He could walk through that door.

Casper said he was pushed by Bill O'Brien, an assistant professor of ceramics, to take his work to the depths that he did.

"I didn't want him to use any of his disabilities or his experience in war to disempower him," O'Brien said. "I wanted him to use all that experience as a vehicle to give him confidence to make work that was important."

Casper's sculptures are often large and deal with loss of innocence, many featuring soldier helmets and vibrant colors.

"What changed me was that I was able to tell my experience without telling my experience," Casper said. He wondered, "How can I get other veterans to do what I just did?"

"Would you write a song with me?"

There was one thing Casper said he couldn't talk about through in his sculptures — the death of a war buddy he considered his little brother, Luke Yepsen, whose name is tattooed on his arm.

Yepsen had played guitar, and Casper wanted to honor him through song.

When living in Wrigleyville and working as a doorman at Joe's on Weed Street, Casper approached songwriter Mark Irwin — who penned Tim McGraw and Taylor Swift's "Highway Don't Care" — after he played a show.

"I have so much inside of me that I can't get out, that I want to put into a song," Casper told Irwin. "If I came down to Nashville, would you write a song with me?"

The resulting song, "One Night in Iraq," was the beginning of CreatiVets, with more songwriters and bands eventually coming into the fold, like Blackjack Billy and Walker McGuire.

A lot of military men don't consider art as a path for them, Casper said.

"If I went to any of my Marine buddies and I said, 'Point out an artist,' it's not going to be the 6-foot-5 Marine," he said, laughing.

The Marine veteran, who now lives in Virginia Beach, will be back in Chicago at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago next summer, but this time as a teacher. He's worked through the first iteration of the curriculum for a 2- to 3-week intensive art course aimed at veterans.

Casper serves as a great liaison for military men who want to explore art, O'Brien said.

"Artists' jobs are to speak for people who are not spoken for, who have a silent voice," O'Brien said. "Richard's vision is to really speak for a lot of veterans who don't have a voice, who don't feel empowered and don't know how to heal themselves. I think it's a really important thing that he's doing."

While at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago a few years ago, when CreatiVets was just the smallest seed of an idea, Casper realized how far he'd come from the guy who became physically ill at the thought of leaving his house, and how he climbed out of that darkness through art.

"If everyone gets this chance," he thought. "It would save a lot of lives."

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs offers resources for veterans and their family and friends. A link for PTSD is here and for veteran suicide here. The suicide crisis hotline can be reached by calling 800-273-8255 and pressing 1 or by texting 838255.

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