When Richard Casper returned to his small Illinois hometown in 2007 after sustaining a traumatic brain injury in Iraq, he had a story to tell.
"But I didn't know how to tell it," said Casper, whose Humvee was hit by four separate IED blasts in four months.
His story wasn't about his physical injuries, though. In December 2006, Casper's U.S. Marine combat unit was ambushed by sniper fire in Fallujah. His best friend, 20-year-old Lance Cpl. Luke Yepsen, was killed right beside him.
The naturally jovial Casper was plagued by post-traumatic stress, depression, and severe anxiety. "I was suicidal and didn’t want to leave the house," he said. "I couldn’t speak to strangers or in front of people. What ended up saving my life—and giving Luke new life—was the process of being able to tell his story though art."
Casper enrolled in the Art Institute of Chicago to study sculpture, painting, and creative writing, eventually earning a degree in fine arts. In 2013, he co-founded the nonprofit CreatiVets with Linda Tarrson to help fellow veterans cope with service-related trauma by fostering creative self-expression in ways that transform their stories into an artform that can inspire and enable continued healing.
"At first, I needed a voice," Casper said. "And when I found that voice through art, I needed a purpose for that voice."
“We help take personal, painful stories veterans need to get off their chest and turn them into a song. The process helps remap the way they think and communicate about their experiences. ”
Healing through art
CreatiVets flies veterans from across the U.S. to Nashville to collaborate with some of Music City's top songwriters, or to Chicago to participate in three weeks of accredited art classes. In Nashville, participants meet a mentor veteran who has completed the program, then they spend a few days translating the veteran’s memories and emotions into lyrics and melody. When they return home, they have a demo of the songs they created—recorded in a Nashville studio by session musicians—to share with family and friends.
"We provide tools and resources for veterans to open up and heal through music," Casper said. "We help take personal, painful stories veterans need to get off their chest and turn them into a song. The process helps remap the way they think and communicate about their experiences."
A network of more than 100 songwriters—many of whom have penned No. 1 hits—volunteer their time to CreatiVets. "When we started out, I’d go out every night in Nashville to meet songwriters and ask if they’d be willing to co-write with veterans," Casper said. "Now writers seek us out."
Most CreatiVets songs tend to fit in the country music category, though the genre depends on the veteran’s personal music tastes. "If they love R&B, we’ll find writers and artists who focus on R&B,” said Casper. "We want the veteran to feel personally connected to this music."
"We have a song for that"
As CreatiVets began to grow, so did Casper's vision. "I felt a push to do more than fly veterans in to write a song and send them home with a recording," he said. "I saw an opportunity to use this great content we’d created—a library of over 100 songs—to reach and help more veterans. Veterans would share their story with us. And I’d say, ‘We have a song for that.’ I knew there was an audience."
Casper set out to produce an album of CreatiVets songs, but needed a label and a publisher, as well as an avenue to streaming platforms. A door opened last summer, when Casper met John Quintas, managing director of global military affairs at Amazon, at a community networking event in Nashville.
"I found his story really compelling and wanted to help," Quintas said. "His intent is altruistic, he wants more veterans to embrace art as a pathway to healing. To get off the couch and pick up a paintbrush, write lyrics, or learn an instrument."
Helping a "community sitting in the shadows"
Veteran suicide rates are higher than the general population, with an average of 20 suicides per day, according to a 2019 report by the Department of Veteran Affairs. Of those daily estimates, 14 never sought help. The isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has presented even greater challenges.
"A decade ago, the number-one issue facing veterans was unemployment," Quintas said. "That’s largely been solved, but the problem no one can seem to find a solution for is around mental health. Richard sees music as a means to reach out and help a community sitting in the shadows."
After meeting Steve Boom, vice president of Amazon Music at an event, Quintas connected Casper with Amazon Music's country lead, Kelly Rich, who lined up a meeting with Big Machine Records, a prominent Nashville-based label where she once worked.
"Kelly asked all the right questions and gave me all the answers I needed," Casper said. "She introduced me to Scott Borchetta, and we bonded over a desire to put out great music created by veterans, for veterans."
"CreatiVets' vision and passion to help veterans understand their value and offer them the chance to heal through creating music is nothing short of groundbreaking," said Scott Borchetta, Big Machine Label Group President and CEO. "Kelly Rich from Amazon Music introduced us to Richard, and we welcomed this partnership with his organization to provide therapeutic solutions not only with our record and publishing divisions but also with our Music Has Value fund, which is dedicated to providing support to music programs that educate and encourage those who aspire to make music.”
Streaming for service members—and everyone
Big Machine Records will release Veteran Songs July 3 on Amazon Music and other streaming services. The label is serving as co-publisher with CreatiVets to provide licensing, administration, and royalty collection services for mentor songwriters as well as participants who opt in.
The 11 tracks on the album are both intimately personal and universal. "It’s a mix of tender relationship and family songs, inspirational messages, and powerful war stories," said Casper. "We wanted to tackle a range of themes that resonate with veterans."
Rich worked with Casper to create a special way for Amazon Music listeners to access the album by asking, "Alexa, play music by veterans." Selections also will be included on the streaming service's America is Beautiful playlist.
"So many people discover new artists and songs via voice, so we hope this will be a great opportunity for Amazon Music listeners to hear the culmination of Richard’s meaningful work," said Rich.
The Amazon Music integration with Alexa gets Casper one step closer to his goal of reaching the homes of all veterans in the U.S. through his organization's music and programming.
"We see this as volume one," he said.