Twenty-two veteran suicides per day. Eight thousand and thirty per year. It’s more than 2.5 times the number who died on 9/11, and its a statistic that stopped Tom Spooner and Magnus Johnson, both former combat-tested Green Berets, in their tracks and defined their post-military mission. “Warriors voluntarily place themselves in harm’s way. They accept placing themselves entirely at the behest of their country, to go where they are told to go and do what they are told to do by their democratically elected leaders. This is the ultimate public service, and the risks it entails means society has a debt unto these individuals. For healing to truly occur, focus needs to be not only on the warrior, but also on society and the need for it to reconcile its desire to focus on peace with the recognition that warriors are an important part of society and that they live among them,” says Johnson.

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Together, Johnson and Spooner created Elder Heart, a 501(c)(3) organization aimed at reintegrating veterans to civilian life through public art by healing communities and warriors together. The name Elder Heart comes from what other cultures have done to support returning warriors. In those cultures, elders were called upon to work with warriors and guide them through the process of returning from war. The elders knew, from their own experiences, that there were things returning warriors would feel and the pain they would experience was complex and difficult to reconcile. Likewise, Elder Heart brings our current generation of warriors together with their own, with previous generations of warriors, and with non-military members of the community. The public art is the mechanism that facilitates these groups coming together, giving both a combined purpose.

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Elder Heart works at the community level through a broad network of small groups across the country. Local artists are teamed with Elder Heart veterans and volunteers, and supported by local community leaders who choose the site and design for the public art. Ultimately, the local area receives a new work of public art designed by one of its own artists and created by members of its community. But more importantly, the community comes together to honor and heal the veterans, and the art remains to continue to tell the story, not of a military conquest, but of warriors who served and returned to a community.

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