The Veteran Artist Program helps the talents of US military vets bloom

BR McDonald founded the Veteran Artist Program to brings art, music, theater, and painting to communities across the country while helping veterans launch careers in the arts.

Courtesy of the Veteran Artist Program
BR McDonald founded the Veteran Artist Program, which brings art, music, theater, and painting created by US military veterans to communities across the country.

BR McDonald was living in Washington, D.C., when on a clear blue September morning an airplane flew into the Pentagon.

“Things kind of changed for me after 9/11,” Mr. McDonald says. “There is no precedence for the military in my family, except maybe for an ancestor in the Civil War. But there is a strong tradition of service.”

And so the classically trained musician and actor set aside his dream of Broadway for boot camp. He spent seven years as an Arabic linguist and special operator in the US Joint Special Operations Command. And five years ago he founded the Veteran Artist Program (VAP), a nonprofit group designed to help veterans launch successful careers in the arts.

The organization brings art, music, theater, and painting to communities across the country. It also helps artists secure funding and learn how to market their work.

“A lot of people only see art as a means of therapy for veterans. That’s not what VAP is about, although we do work with art as healing,” McDonald says. “People have to understand that these are artists who happen to be veterans. The two are not mutually exclusive.”

Jenn Hassin, an Air Force veteran who lives in Austin, Texas, connected with the VAP a few years ago.

“I forced myself into the art world, making it my career. But it’s a challenge finding financing and earning a living from it,” Ms. Hassin says.

Among her works is “Letters of Sacrifice,” which honors the nearly 7,000 US service members killed since 2001. It’s made of military condolence letters; each letter represents a fallen service member.

The Pentagon will display “Letters” this spring. The 9/11 Memorial Museum in NYC also plans to display the work.

[Editor's note: The original version of this story misstated the time of the "Letters" display at the Pentagon.]

In the past five years VAP has organized 53 projects and productions in 15 states. Artists from all 50 states have worked with VAP.

Operation:Oliver is among the community projects VAP has supported. Volunteers with the project removed nearly 60 tons of garbage from one of Baltimore’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. Then artists, working under the umbrella of VAP, painted two large murals in the neighborhood.

The son of a missionary, McDonald lived in Taiwan from the age of six until he was 13. Fluent in Mandarin Chinese, he graduated from University of North Carolina in 2001 with a double major in vocal performing and religious studies.

Shortly after 9/11 he entered basic training at the US Army's Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C. He’d hoped to put his fluency in Mandarin to use, but the Army had other plans. The day before basic training ended he learned he was going to be an Arabic linguist.

Off McDonald went to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif. For 63 weeks, eight hours a day, he learned Arabic and only Arabic. But the process actually came easily.

“There are a lot of people in the intelligence community with a creative background,” McDonald says. “It’s the same side of the brain. Music is just another language. So when I heard something I could repeat it.”

He graduated at the top of his class and was assigned to the 104th Military Intelligence Battalion at Fort Carson near Pueblo, Colo. But as the only Arab linguist in his unit, no one knew what to do with him. McDonald spent his days changing drip pans in the motor pool.

“I’ve always been a doer. I wanted to use my training. It was depressing,” he recalls.

After nearly eight months of limbo JSOC recruited McDonald as a linguist. He traveled in and out of Pakistan on assignment for the next several years.

McDonald left the Army in 2008, moving to Baltimore to work as an intelligence and operations consultant for the Defense Department. After a couple of years he decided he had let his creative side lie dormant for far too long.

“My artist side wanted to break free. For so long I’d thought you had to choose one or the other,” he says.

He realized there were scores of other veterans who were artists at heart.

Recently, the Pentagon, working with the VAP, hosted a show of veterans' artwork. The VAP put out a national call for submissions and chose 50 artists from 30 states.

In the next year McDonald hopes to transition to the role of President of the Board as he seeks full-time employment. He also hopes to find more time to write a memoir and more outlets to perform music. Last summer he spent 10 days in Verbier, Switzerland, performing classical music with a collegiate chorale.

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