Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard is credited with defining country music as “three chords and the truth.” Present-day Nashville songwriter and military veteran Richard Casper knows the truth of Howard’s words firsthand, having found a way to process his post-traumatic stress by telling his story in a song, “Angel on my Shoulder.”
Casper went on to co-found the arts-focused Nashville nonprofit CreatiVets to help others like him heal their war wounds. A new exhibit at the San Antonio International Airport, From War to Words: A Visual Voices Portrait Series by Jason Myers, features songs and portraits of 11 CreatiVets participants, presented as printed placards on the upper level of Terminal B.
Casper was a non-musician who learned three chords on a guitar, then wrote a song to describe the pain he felt after suffering a left brain traumatic injury and the loss of gunner and friend Luke Yepsen while serving in Iraq.
Like many veterans, Casper said, he didn’t know how to communicate his experiences.
“When I came home, I didn’t know how to tell my story, just like most of us don’t,” he said. “I didn’t write songs. I didn’t do art. I didn’t do anything. I didn’t know what to do. I was going downhill fast.”
A friend, Brett Gillan — now CreatiVets program director — lent Casper a guitar and showed him how to play those three simple chords. The experience enabled Casper to express his complex feelings through songwriting and begin the healing process. He also realized his experience could help other suffering veterans.
CreatiVets pairs veterans with professional musicians in Nashville to turn their personal stories into songs, a process Casper said not only helps the veterans heal, but also communicates to listeners the true costs of war.
Casper began hearing testimonials from family members of veterans who had heard the songs. He said they told him, “‘This sounds like my dad,’ or ‘This sounds like my husband.’ … ‘You helped our marriage because now he’s talking about his experience through this song.’”
Since its founding in 2013, the nonprofit has helped nearly 900 veterans deal with their war wounds through visual arts and music, with 11 professionally-produced songs collected on the 2020 album Veteran Songs. Those songs comprise the San Antonio airport exhibit, which includes QR codes leading to streaming websites where they can be heard.
Portraits by Myers, a prominent Nashville photographer, accompany each song placard. Though Myers’ roster of celebrity portraits includes such luminaries as Muhammad Ali and President Barack Obama, he said that making the CreatiVets portraits “gives [the veterans] a beam of light … that shines on the people that need to be recognized.”
Platinum-selling Nashville country music duo Love and Theft worked on two of the songs: “Helpless,” that tells the story of combat medic Stephen Carr, and “Another Day,” by Jerry Majetich.
U.S. Marine Corps and Army veteran Majetich suffered horrendous injuries that resulted in the amputation of his right hand and burns that have necessitated more than 80 surgeries, but “Another Day” speaks of putting aside pain and blame to appreciate the good things life can bring:
It’s the love of a beautiful woman
It’s the sun rising every morning
Everyday knowing I ain’t gonna waste a minute
It’s my faith that keeps me going
Trusting in the Lord and knowing
Tomorrow’s not a guarantee that’s why today
Is more than just another day
Love and Theft members Stephen Barker Liles and Eric Gunderson performed the song for a crowd of 60,000 during halftime of the Tennessee Titans National Football League game on Nov. 9, then visited San Antonio Tuesday morning to perform it for a small crowd of city dignitaries and media members at the airport. Afterwards, they described working with Carr on Another Day, taking notes as he spoke of his experiences, then turning his words into lyrics and melody.
“It’s a fun process, because it’s something that a lot of people don’t get to see,” Liles said. “But it’s also really healing. It’s very emotional.”
While visiting Military City U.S.A. for the performance, CreatiVets paired the two songwriters with Richard Stinson, the airport’s chief of strategic communications and a 24-year military veteran who served multiple combat deployments in Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Africa.
Stinson, already a fan and self-professed beneficiary of CreatiVets songs, worked with Matt Evans, the airport’s arts and culture manager, to bring the exhibit to the airport for National Veterans and Military Families Month.
Composed in a few hours at the St. Anthony Hotel downtown, the song, titled “I’d Change Everything,” puts into words things Stinson hadn’t been able to articulate to his estranged family.
Gunderson said of the result, “He’s gonna have that song as a tool to play for his oldest daughter and his three sons and say, ‘Listen, this is why I am the way I am. I know I could never put it into words before, but I hope this gift to you will give you a little glimpse of what’s going on in my head.’”
As with other veterans who participate in its programs, CreatiVets will fly Stinson to Nashville to witness Liles, Gunderson, and other professionals record his song. Stinson said he hopes the song is a gift not only for his family but for other veterans who have struggled with depression, PTSD, suicide and other difficulties.
“If you’re a veteran, and you’re struggling with these issues, your family is also struggling with it too,” Stinson said. “Although I could never articulate the challenges and struggles that I had, or the reasons why I was having them, I’m very hopeful that this is a gift that can do that.”
From War to Words will remain on view through March, and is accessible to airport visitors on the upper level of Terminal B.