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Marine Vet, Heartland Alum Honored For Using Art To Help Others Heal

Heartland Community College Alumnus Richard Casper, right, received the Illinois Community College Trustees Association (ICCTA) Distinguished Alumni Award in a ceremony Friday.
Steve Fast
Heartland Community College
Heartland Community College Alumnus Richard Casper, right, received the Illinois Community College Trustees Association (ICCTA) Distinguished Alumni Award in a ceremony Friday.

Sometimes a creative outlet can be a lifesaver—literally.

Marine veteran and Heartland Community College graduate Richard Casper is a Purple Heart recipient, artist and entrepreneur. The central Illinois native suffered a traumatic brain injury during a tour in Iraq.

Now, Casper dedicates himself to helping other veterans heal through art. That mission earned Casper the Illinois Community College Trustees Association (ICCTA) Distinguished Alumni Award, which he received on Friday.

Casper said he has learned to lean into the changes life brings. Casper was born in Peoria and raised in the Woodford County village of Washburn.

Richard Casper

“This is a town where I had 22 kids in my graduating class. There's like no real getting out, unless you join the military or do something else," Casper said. "I had a lot of family members who were in the military and I was also a junior when 9/11 happened, I had a real need to go serve my country.”

Casper joined the Marines right out of high school. During boot camp, he was selected to be a “special tester” for an undisclosed assignment.

“It started with about 400 Marines and ended with like 20 of us by the end of boot camp. That's when they told us what we're doing. They said, 'You guys have been selected for presidential guard, so you'll go off and guard the President of the United States,'" Casper said. "I was blown away, thinking that this was even a job.”

Casper ended up guarding President George W. Bush for 14 months at Camp David. Then came the combat tour in Iraq.

“Within the first four months, my Humvee was blown up four separate times, which left me with a traumatic brain injury. And then my buddy was shot and killed beside me," Casper said. "I was left with PTSD and a lot of depression and anxiety, so transitioning home was just horrible. I had all these issues I didn't know how to deal with. I went to the VA, it wasn't working. And so then I said, you know, I'm just going to enroll into college.”

Heartland Community College was the first school he applied to. Casper said his original plan was to study business and go onto Illinois State University.

Again, life took a turn. Casper said one teacher changed his path by introducing him to art as a way to express feelings. Casper said it changed everything.

“He just he poured his heart into what I was doing. He knew I was struggling and he helped me tell my story in ways I didn't know I could—without telling it, just by putting it in a picture, or using a color to symbolize what I was going through," Casper said. "Art and music ended up just completely changing my life and put me on a new trajectory.”

Casper went on to graduate from the Art Institute of Chicago, where his passion for visual art and songwriting flourished. That’s when he realized other veterans might benefit from having a creative outlet.

Casper launched CreatiVets in 2013 to help those injured in combat heal through art. It started by helping veterans write songs in Nashville, where Casper now lives. Many are flown in from Illinois. Casper also started a program at the Art Institute that lets veterans with no artistic background pursue degrees.

Casper said the nonprofit quickly gained traction in the country music scene:

“It just kept expanding to the point to where now, we have a partnership with Big Machine Records which—they lost Taylor Swift— but they have Florida Georgia Line, Tim McGraw, Sheryl Crow, Brantley Gilbert, Justin Moore, and all these other artists," Casper said. "Now CreatiVets, our organization, is a part of that roster. And we're putting out veteran music created for veterans by veterans … All because of what I learned from Heartland Community College.”

Casper said the military ethos is to always show strength. After getting out, it's hard to admit or even realize the value of vulnerability. But through art and music, he said it doesn’t take long to get the creative juices flowing.

CreatiVets partners veterans with a “battle buddy” who helps them translate ideas into colors, shapes, symbols and songs.

Casper said the physical act of making something is in itself therapeutic.

“But what's happening inside the person creating art is this whole reprocessing and re-purposing of the memories that you're going through, and remapping the way that you think about this experience," he said.

Casper said it also helps when veterans share things with their loved ones they wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

“When they do a songwriting session and they tell me some of the things that are like, 'I can't tell my wife or kids this, but this happened to me in Iraq' and then we write a song about it—we're crying during the session, but when we have the song at the end of it, they're so pumped up and excited that they text it to their whole family," Casper said. "Now, they have attached that happy moment to a very sad experience.”

Casper said CreatiVets has helped more than 300 veterans this year, adding the organization is now offering programming for veterans’ family members, as well. But he said the impact is likely larger.

“We really will never know how many veterans we’ve helped because our music has reached millions and millions of people. We have a few songs that are on YouTube that have over a million listens," Casper said. "We did a study on our music (among veterans) to see if our music alone can help heal them, help them make them feel like they're not alone ... And what came back was all positive reviews. We've had wives email us about how their song helped their husband tell them about stories they never told him before, because they related so much with the veteran in the song.”

Casper said this creates a support system of other veterans and sends a clear message: you are not alone and someone understands you.

To learn more about Casper and CreatiVets, visit this link.

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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.
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