- Associated Press - Sunday, August 10, 2014

NASHVILLE, Ind. (AP) - When Green Beret Magnus Johnson learned that fellow service members were dying by their own hands, he couldn’t stand idle.

Every day, at least 22 veterans commit suicide nationally.

He knows four who did.

“Why isn’t this a national priority,” the eight-year Army veteran kept asking himself after finishing one tour in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan.

But he soon realized the government can’t do it all. It can’t provide all the healing necessary to stem the 8,030 veteran suicides a year.

“I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘What am I doing?’ The answer was nothing. I wasn’t very comfortable with that,” Johnson, 33, a self-taught metal artist living in Nashville, told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1nkMGyl ).

The healing, he says, has to emanate from communities, towns, families and veterans. And he’s learned from his metalwork that it can come from art, too.

His deep feelings for veterans and his love of art led him to form a nonprofit group, Elder Heart. Its aim is to use art to bring attention to veterans’ suicides and their service.

The group’s first major project, a striking 18-foot leaf sculpture, called “Soaring,” now stands in the heart of Nashville, the popular fall tourist spot. Each of its brightly-colored 22 leaves represents the daily toll of veteran suicides as reported by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

With help from some fellow Special Forces members and other friends, the nonprofit was created in May 2013. It’s not just a veterans group, though. Johnson brings together local communities - volunteers, artists, businesses and officials - to create works of public, private and corporate art and other projects in Indiana and anywhere in the U.S.

It’s called social impact art - beauty with a message.

“We wanted to think of a way where we can impact where we live, we could tell the story without it being way, super-nationalistic, without it being really dark and really heavy,” said Johnson, president and CEO of Elder Heart.

While this is a fledgling organization, Johnson hopes word will spread from this initial project so other communities will commission work or use Elder Heart’s model for their own projects.

Already, Elder Heart is making and helping to fund a 6-foot granite memorial for the family of a Navy Seal in Rhode Island who committed suicide on Veteran’s Day 2012. A potential project is in the works in Cincinnati. And Pit Bull Leather Co. commissioned a replica of Elder Heart’s hawk logo for the outside its Nashville store.

The leaf sculpture took a major investment of time and money.

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