I taught theatre in Lee’s Summit, MO for many years and had the privilege to work with many wonderful students. One of them I truly treasured was Richard Gibson, who went on to enlist in the Marines after high school and serve his country with honor. We reconnected after his return from overseas as he began formal training in music and opera.

Richard wrote a letter in response to the budget situation facing the Missouri Legislature this year. From his words, I hope all elected officials realize the value of the arts in education. Adequate funding for schools keep arts programs alive. Public investment in arts agencies allows institutions in large cities and rural communities alike to provide arts opportunities for their citizens.

Please find Richard’s open letter about the importance of arts education below.

To my fellow Combat Veterans,

Welcome back. Just as you trusted your brothers to make it home, please trust me now so that you can accomplish your dreams. Listen to these words of experience and hopefully you will find your happiness as well. I was with 3rd Battalion, Fifth Marines during the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We earned the first Presidential Unit Citation (PUC) since Vietnam due to how we handled the first hand-to-hand combat since Vietnam. I earned my Combat Action Ribbon.

Is it a tough road transitioning? It can be very difficult for warriors like us. You see, what has happened to you cannot be felt, only experienced through failed efforts. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Think you’re too tough? Let me ask you this, how do you like adrenaline now? … You just got done experiencing the most a human being can naturally experience. During combat, the level of adrenaline in your system was at an all time high. So much so that it rewired the limbic system of your brain. The limbic system is associated with memory, instinct, smells, dreams, you get the point … I know; I have been there and done that.

So here’s what normally happens, we come back and for 30 days it is heaven on earth. We are invincible and on top of the world. But then you wake up on that 31st day and everything is different. Clarity is gone and the feeling of loneliness becomes overwhelming, your eating patterns change, your mind cannot shut off, ever. I drank to help myself sleep, which didn’t really help. It never really does because it’s guilt-ridden sleep, at best. My fiancé at the time ended the relationship, my family didn’t want to be around me and I had very few people I could call a friend. I was all alone and kept it that way. I stayed in my “bunker” so that I wouldn’t hurt anybody else. After enough times (of this), I started wondering if it was even worth it anymore to have me around. And so the thoughts of removing the negative aspect of the equation, me, from the picture started to fill my daily thoughts.

However, without even knowing it, I was incredibly lucky. That first night of having to fall asleep after experiencing actual combat was … unique. I couldn’t sleep until I found a happy place inside of my heart to escape to. With my mind racing and my heart confused I was purely honest with myself for what was likely the first time ever. Long story short, my happy place was on stage.

Remembering back to when I was performing in high school choir, on the stage of Carnegie Hall imagining that I was singing with Jussi Bjeorling (a great tenor of old) or even dressed up in a huge duck costume during the musical Pippin. I remembered getting a Cameo award for that show and I also remembered standing at the podium telling my fellow theatre students that when times get tough for me in the future, “I will look back on these days and allow them to give me comfort in my most difficult times.”

That it did and more. I have to be one of the luckiest men on the face of the Earth to have fallen into pursuing the arts immediately after coming home from war. Without even realizing it I had a way to express myself without using the words I was so afraid to use at the time. It was brilliant! Through all of these questions inside of my soul I was able to trudge through those experiences while allowing my heart an open pathway for healing. Without that, I am certain that I would have become part of the “22 a day” statistic.

Now, it doesn’t have to be opera or even music for that matter. I have found solace in pottery, fly fishing, creative writing, owning a dog, speaking to children’s groups, painting (I am terrible at it but still trying), laughing with my friends (now that I am able to do so), eating healthy, working, dancing, plays, musical theatre, reading at poetry slams, etc. …

Ask yourself the question, “What is art,” long enough and you will find that art is the pursuit of truth. Nothing more, nothing less. Anything selfish or self-serving destroys true art. And it is art that truly helps the heart to heal. Art can be anywhere and is everywhere if you only have the courage to open yourself to it. It is not just on the stage or in the practice room, it is in all walks of life. Anywhere that the truth is the focus … there is art. It is in science, at a surgeon’s office, in a chiropractor’s hands, restaurants, construction sites, elementary schools, or even just sitting and talking with someone who cares. You can find your art, whatever it may be, wherever you seek it.

Plainly stated, from one veteran to another, focusing my life in the arts saved my life. It has given me a new purpose in life to help improve the lives of those I come across in this beautiful journey called life. Is it the answer to everything? No. However, when coupled with treatment from a mental health specialist (BTW, whenever the .50 cal you were firing seized up you gave it to a specialist to fix, the armourer, because you didn’t have the training to do it yourself. So just suck up your pride, stop being silly, and ask for some help) it will certainly help to expedite the process of healing so you can find a way to give back to your fellow man and live your life with purpose again. This is how we can start to reshape the fabric of America and be part of the backbone of this country once again, as veterans should always be.

Thank you for picking up the banner of freedom that my friends and I carried onwards. The country needs more men and women like you in it. Stay positive, go ask for help, and get involved the arts and just see how your life improves.

Life doesn’t have to be so heavy once you realize that you have more to give to your fellow man. And isn’t that what we ultimately want, to be able to serve our brethren to our greatest capabilities? Of course it is, you’re a Veteran.

Semper Fidelis,

Richard B Gibson

Ben F. Martin is a member of Americans for the Arts.