Marine veteran Richard Casper struggled after he returned from combat in Iraq with a traumatic brain injury. He found relief in an art class and followed his passion to the Art Institute of Chicago.
He’s devoted his career to helping other wounded veterans find the healing he discovered in art and music. He’s the founder and driving force behind CreatiVets, a nonprofit organization that aims to “empower wounded veterans through art and music.”
Humans have used stories to cope with life struggles going all the way back to the beginnings of language. When you dig deep into the subject, you realize that art and music are just more elaborate forms of storytelling. Warriors have shared their stories around the campfire for thousands of years, but our modern culture and technology have accidentally muted that shared ritual.
Casper’s on a mission. He believes that helping veterans write a song that tells their stories is a way to open those lines of communication.
The success of CreatiVets suggests that he’s right. The group is releasing a series of singles featuring some of the most powerful songs written in the workshops that Casper now leads in Nashville, Tennessee. He started the program with a vision of what things could be, hustling just enough money to cover expenses to get other veterans to the Music City and networking his way into the inner circles of that city’s country music community.
Now, the program has backers, veterans work with A-list country talent, and they’ve got a distribution deal with Big Machine Records -- home of Florida Georgia Line, Lady A, Tim McGraw, Sheryl Crow, Thomas Rhett and Aaron Lewis.
The latest release from CreatiVets is the single “All I Need Is You,” featuring vocals by up-and-coming singer Kalsey Kulyk. The song was written by Kulyk and Mark Irwin with Gold Star parents Mike and Lisa De La Cruz. Their son, Dillon Semolina, was one of 12 Marines killed in a helicopter training accident in Hawaii in 2016.
The song will be released on Memorial Day.
The parents joined the songwriting program, and writing the song has helped the family process its grief. No one in the family thinks there’s a miracle cure for their loss, but the song helps.
“There is that lack of closure,'' Lisa De La Cruz said. "Some of these extra things ... the song ... they’re nice. They’re nice to have in his honor.”
Said Mike, “The story, the music, everything ... fold it together. It’s horrible and wonderful at the exact same time.”
Richard Casper tells an amazing story of how he built his nonprofit organization through sheer determination, vision and a whole lot of hustle. While digging into his conversation with Military.com, you can listen to the CreatiVets album “Veteran Songs” by saying “Alexa, play music by veterans” to your Amazon smart speaker.
Military.com: Your organization takes a different approach to helping veterans than most of the other military nonprofits. Why is CreatiVets such a distinctive group?
Richard Casper: We're a veteran nonprofit helping veterans heal through arts and music. Ultimately, our goal is to try to end veteran suicide through this. If we want to do that, you have to look at statistical data. There are 20 suicides a day in the veteran military space, and 14 of those don't seek help.
I had this crazy idea because I've never heard one veteran say that they don't like music. When I started on a path to writing my own song after I was injured, I had this need to tell the story of my buddy who was shot and killed beside me. I taught myself songwriting and guitar, which led me to dabbling into the arts, which led me to the Art Institute of Chicago, the best art school in the country.
Ultimately, songwriting saved me. Because of that, I decided to start my own nonprofit and try to help veterans find that healing that I did, even if they’ve never done anything with music before.
There’s a sense of comfort in knowing that they have their song that tells a story about them. In 2013, we started bringing veterans from anywhere in the country to Nashville, Tennessee, to write with pro songwriters who could help them tell their story for the first time.
And that's how it started, and it was extremely successful. Veterans who had never done songwriting before would come out here, and we’d pair them with another veteran. In the beginning, it was just me because we're a small nonprofit.
I’d say, ‘Hey I would work with them and say, hey, I was injured, my Humvee was blown up four times and it left me with a brain injury. I lost my best friend. Tell me what happened to you.’ They’d trust me and tell me these things they went through that they hadn’t talked about before.
We’d fly them to Nashville, pay for their flights, their bills, their housing. When they landed here, I was the one that picked them up. I told them that I would go into that writing room with them and make sure they got their story down and be their battle buddy. That’s why I think these sessions have been so successful.
From there, we've expanded. Now when a veteran flies in to attend, we have a partnership with the Grand Ole Opry. We go backstage at the Opry with a veteran and two pro writers or artists so they can tell their story for the first time.
Circling back to suicide prevention, the idea is that if we're truly going to help the veterans that need it the most, we need to get inside their homes. That's what we're trying to do through music.
Now we’ve partnered with Amazon. If you say, “Alexa, play music by veterans,” it now plays CreatiVets songs. We recently released a song with Aaron Lewis and Vince Gill called
“They Call Me Doc.” It’s the ninth song we ever wrote in the program. It’s written with a Navy Corpsman who wanted to tell the story of all Corpsmen and medics in the field.
Now, our music is directly finding the veterans that need it. They see CreatiVets as the artist and do a search and see that we fly them from anywhere in the country to our programs to help them heal.
It’s cyclical. We create a song from a veteran who's struggling in hopes we can help them, but then we release it. And now that song is helping a lot of people around the country, and it's even pulled veterans into our program. That’s a pretty cool thing. We partner with Big Machine Records to release this music.
Military.com: Nashville is a town that can be a challenge for outsiders. There are hundreds of new people showing up in town every day, and it’s tough for the gatekeepers to decide which of those people are worth meeting. How did you convince the music people there to take you seriously?
Casper: In the beginning, I was still living in Illinois, and I would come to town every time I had a veteran. I would pay for them to fly out and meet him. We’d get two hotel rooms, and then we'd go out to writers rounds and listen to these singer songwriters play songs.
Every time they played a song I knew from the radio, I'd go up to that writer afterwards and tell them how I bring veterans to town and ask them if they’d write with one. Typically, they always say yes and give me their number.
Things just grew to the point where they're telling their songwriter friends about us. And then they're telling their publishers and I get meetings with the publisher and just say, ‘Hey, here's what I'm doing. This isn't for me; it's for CreatiVets. I fly in combat veterans to tell their stories when your songwriters want to help.’
What you asked is a perfect example of my introduction to Scott Borchetta from Big Machine, because you just don't get into a room with Scott. I've known the people from Big Machine Records pretty much since the first year I lived here, and I could never get in a room with him.
Some of the best advice I ever got when I first got here was that it doesn't matter how awesome your program is -- if you don't have another person vouch for you first, you're never going to get in the door.
There was another nonprofit that was writing some songs of veterans, but nobody was doing it the way we were. We’re using the cultural competency that veterans have with veterans, helping them tell their stories. You're not going to get that raw, real, intimate thing from them to come out if it's just a songwriter, because they aren’t going to tell a civilian they’ve just met things that they haven't told anybody before. It’s going to take another veteran to that out of them.
But I had to get in those rooms to be able to explain that. That took so much networking, getting to know people and hustling. I constantly reminded myself where I wanted to go, not just the songwriting, but I wanted to have our music played and I wanted artists to sing these veteran songs and have them go out there.
It took a lot of knocking on people's doors or doing follow ups. So even with the people inside Big Machine, it took constantly following up with new things, letting them know everything CreatiVets is doing.
I have terms like publishing and songwriting and CreatiVets set up in Google Alerts so, if anything pops up, I can learn about it. I got an alert that saw that Scott and Sandi Borchetta put a million dollars into the Music Has Value fund for arts and music programs. And so I reached out to Mike at Big Machine and said, ‘Hey, I think this is the way to talk to Scott. We're nonprofit, this is education. Could you give me a meeting?’ And then he sent me to someone else who runs it. I had a phone call with that person and it got me in that room with Scott.
I knew where I wanted to be. I didn't want just money. Obviously money is what makes nonprofits work. But I'm a very long-term vision person. So when he finally asked, ‘What is it you need, like, what are you looking for?’ I think he expected me to say money or a certain amount, but I wanted a partnership with Big Machine Records.
We have better music created for veterans by veterans. Around 80% of our song co-writers are number one songwriters or pro songwriters with quality stuff, but there's a market for veteran music right now. If you see any veteran out there and you ask what coffee they drink, they'll say, ‘Black Rifle’ or ask about veteran t-shirts and it's Grunt Style or Nine Line.
If you think about veteran music, there’s nothing. You can think about people who sing veteran songs and there are some veteran singers. But there's not a one-stop shop for veteran music. I sold them by saying we can be the first. For us, it's therapeutic. It's getting veterans into our program. For you the record company, it's an opportunity to have the only catalog of music for veterans and by veterans. So I sold him on that and he said, ‘This sounds good. Let's do this.’
Within two months, we put out that Veteran Songs album and from there we've had Craig Campbell cut one of our songs, we have a few possibilities coming up. We have people like Gary LeVox from Rascal Flatts and we've written a song with Craig Morgan and Tyler Farr that will come out a little bit later this year. Now we're getting actual artists attached to the songs to take things to another level. All of this came about because of the tenacity of just going out and hustling and making sure people knew that we were there.
Military.com: Tell us a little bit about your own military service.
Casper: When I first joined the Marine Corps in 2003, I was straight out of high school in Washburn, Illinois. I had two weeks to live it up from high school to boot camp. I went into infantry thinking I was just going to go straight overseas. But I ended up in a specialty program called Yankee White, which was guarding the president of the United States. I didn't know it existed and didn't sign up for it.
The program may have started with like 300 Marines and, by the end of it, there's only about 20 people left. And I was one of them. We were the ones selected to guard the president at either Camp David or the White House.
It was a weird, weird time in my life, because I thought I was going to war. All my friends are going to war. But now, here I was going on what I called the cushy track. But I decided that I’d just do whatever they asked me and I'll go to Iraq afterwards. So I still did SOI right after boot camp, but, instead of going to a line company, I went to security for school for two months in Chesapeake, Virginia. After that, I went to Washington, D.C. for 11 months until my clearance went through.
They asked me if I wanted to do White House communications or Camp David. Because I came from the country, I wanted to go to Camp David. So I went to Camp David for 14 months, while George W. Bush was the president.
When I left there, I had about 18 months left in my contract and they asked me if I wanted to stay up there. I couldn’t get out of the Marine Corps knowing I never served in combat while my friends are going to fight and die.
So I asked them to send me with the next unit that was deploying, so they sent me to the 2/7 (2nd Battalion, 7th Marines -- ed.), but I didn’t actually make deployment with them. They realized that they wouldn’t get back until July 2007 and I was supposed to get out in June 2007, so they said I couldn’t go with them.
I said, ‘Send me to the people who are deploying. What does it take to get to Iraq around here?’ There are plenty of people who don’t want to go, but I want to go. I ended up going to Iraq with the 1st Tank Battalion. The funny story is that I still had to extend one month just to go with them. I didn't know before that you could extend by just one month.
So I went to Iraq, Fallujah in 2006-2007 with a TOW unit. Within the first four months of me being there, my Humvee was blown up four separate times leading me to brain injury, and my buddy was shot and killed beside me.
When I transitioned out of the military, not knowing that I had issues because this was 2007 when even the VA didn't really understand what was going on and they're just giving everyone the 30% rating for PTSD. That's what happened. I was almost suicidal. I had to do one-on-one sessions with my speech teacher when I came home, but my anxieties and depression were so bad, it was just no help. That's what led me down the path to randomly discovering art at a local community college, which then led me to school in Chicago.
Military.com: How do you explain the CreatiVets mission to potential supporters?
Casper: Our whole mission is to teach you a new skill, because I want other veterans to learn what I did. I had no understanding, no appreciation of art or music. I listened to music but didn’t really think about it. I didn't appreciate looking at art, but, because of my injury, I discovered that community, and that led me to the best art school in the country so I could really dive in and it saved my life.
We have photos up on our wall of this dude named Bart who’s like six-foot-four, six-foot-five who fought in Desert Storm and has washes on his face because of a rare skin pigment condition. He’s a North Carolina boy who came to our program, and said, ‘I don't have an art bone in my body.’ The whole idea is that he's there with other combat vets. We're flying them in, we’re paying for his tuition, his housing and food for all three weeks. He goes to the Art Institute in Chicago, and he's with other vets who are not into art and he's being taught by a veteran, but he gets to go to school like a normal student.
By the end of the session, man, it was incredible. The following year, he came back to help me because I was just blown away by him. He reminded me a lot of how I discovered art. He said, ‘I used to get this recurring nightmare. I probably had it seven days a week. I went to another nonprofit that did some, you know, neuro zappin’. Well, it went down to maybe six times a week. Since I went through your program last year, I probably had that dream, maybe three times.’
I was blown away. I said, ‘Bart, you need to tell me these things. This is huge.’ That is absolutely amazing. But it's because we taught him to think like an artist. I call it the transition from your warrior brain to your artist's brain, teaching them art in a way that's accessible to everyone and teaching them about symbolism and color, and all that stuff.
It carries over to songwriting. When we fly them out here, even if they’ve delved into songwriting before, I tell them, ‘Do not be a songwriter in this room.If you are a basketball player and Michael Jordan said he's going to teach you for 30 minutes, are you going to show him what you do for 30 minutes? Or are you going to watch and learn from him? It’s the same thing with these pro songwriters. I just want you to come here and tell your story. Tell that one story that you have no words for, the one that you can't get out and watch it come to life.’”
Afterwards is when we have the actual educational portion. We've had veterans who didn't play guitar or write songs before they came, join us and write a song. Then they learned to play guitar in less than a month because they were so eager to learn to play their own song. They know exactly what the chords are because we make sure they have the chord chart we made in the songwriting lesson. Then we have instructional videos and someone on staff that teaches them if they need help to learn their song
We’re trying to make it accessible. If you can tell a story, you can write a song.
Military.com: Tell us about your new release, “All I Need Is You.”
Casper: We’re releasing the next CreatiVets song for Memorial Day. We had a Marine veteran and his wife come because they are a Gold Star family. They lost their son, Dillon, in a helicopter crash in Hawaii that killed 12 Marines. The parents came and wrote a song and story about Dylan, and we're gonna release that on Memorial Day for them. They were blown away that we're doing that. It's a song called ‘All I Need Is You.’ And it's so impactful.
What we’re doing is not therapy, we're not music therapy. But art can be healing, just to listen to it and see it. When you're sad and you're going through a breakup, you don't listen to happy music, you listen to Adele, you listen to other stuff that brings you back.
We don't do it because we want to be sad, we do it because we want to feel connected to someone who feels the same pain we do. If we know someone else out there feels the way we do, we know we're not alone out there.
That's actually where the healing, the positivity and the bounce back comes from. We have 16 or 17 songs out right now. If you go to Creativets on Spotify, Amazon or Apple Music, you can just listen to the songs. You'll hear songs from fathers to their kids or to their spouses or remembrance songs.
It is so powerful, a lot of them are so deep into our experiences that some people wonder if they’re too negative. No, because that's what we connect with. That's what we want to listen to. Veteran culture wants to listen to veteran creative music made by people who feel the way that they feel.
That's why the song ‘They Call Me Doc’ is so powerful. It has over two million views on YouTube for an acoustic version by the two guys who helped write it because the medic and corpsman community felt like that was their song and they just shared the crap out of it.
I just really want veterans to know that there is a space for veteran creative music. And you may not like all of it. There's one song called ‘Until It Feels Like Home,’ which is exactly about going to war. Not everyone went to war, so some people might skip that song, but they can go to the next song that is about a relationship.
Just know that we're going to release a new song every single month just to help other veterans tell their stories.
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