Helping Veterans Through Art

Richard Casper was patrolling an Iraqi road at dawn in February 2007 when a blast lifted his humvee off the ground in a flash of light. The U.S. Marine had been hit with an improvised explosive device for the fourth time in four months, and for the third time, he suffered a concussion.

The blasts left Casper with traumatic brain injury, and when he returned home to Bloomington, Ill., he struggled with posttraumatic stress, anxiety and depression. To cope with difficult memories, like watching as a fellow Marine was shot and killed next to him, Casper turned to art. Through paintings and sculptures, he could finally relay what he was feeling. “Art ended up changing my life,” says Casper, 32, who now lives in Nashville.

Lukas Augustin for TIME

In 2013, he co-founded CreatiVets, a nonprofit that helps veterans heal through free music and art programs. The group flies veterans to Nashville to collaborate with accomplished songwriters for three days, or to Chicago to study at the School of the Art Institute for three weeks. Casper and CreatiVets co-founder Linda Tarrson have helped more than 80 people so far, including Tommy Houston, who credits the program with repairing his relationship with his 18-year-old daughter Emily. When Houston retired from the U.S. military in 2015, after serving nearly 30 years, he realized how much he’d missed. “I was gone so much. She grew up without me,” says Houston, 50.

Through CreatiVets, Houston channeled his regret into the song “Yellow Balloon.” Emily cried when she heard it. She’s since switched colleges to be closer to her dad in Oregon. “It definitely got her back into my life,” Houston says.

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