How Veterans Can Make a Career in Arts

Art pieces created by Keesler personnel are on display during an Art Inspo inside the Sablich Center at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi.
Art pieces created by Keesler personnel are on display during an Art Inspo inside the Sablich Center at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. (Kemberly Groue/U.S. Air Force photo)

The guidance from transition programs can feel pretty cookie-cutter. Did you work on generators in the service? Someone in your city needs a generator mechanic.

But if you don't want to separate from the military just to do the same job in civilian clothes, and you'd rather not take business classes with the GI Bill, you can cut a different path by pursuing a career as an artist, writer or other creative position.

Working in the arts gives veterans a chance to tell their own stories and those of their community, whether that's about their military experiences or their civilian lives. For Army veteran Jimmie Roberts, that meant a career in film.

Roberts was a 25Q in the service, a multichannel transmission systems operator-maintainer. But he didn't want to spend his whole life linking satellites together. Luckily, some experience in film led to him being selected by his unit in South Korea to edit morale videos while also serving as the colonel's driver.

So when he wasn't networking satellites or driving, he would put videos together -- and decided he loved doing it. When he left the Army after four years, he went to school on the GI Bill and studied film.

Now, he's the co-founder of Shoot The Box Productions. In the past, he's pitched a TV show that aimed a camera at the epidemic of veteran suicides. Currently, he's working on a film project titled "Pride of the Panther" that looks at how Black athletes and communities have been impacted as historically Black colleges and universities (HBCU) have struggled.

While on an HBCU tour with his cousin, Roberts, a former football player, was struck by how many of the schools are closing despite a clear, positive impact on the Black community.

"I brung my little cousin to an HBCU, and I was like, 'Man, this is what it is about,'" he said. "If you look at the face of those families who now, in 2018, have first-generation college students going, that is impactful. But on the flip side, those schools are closing every day. Other institutions aren't readily available and affordable."

Another artist and veteran has tried to help others by telling his own story of alcoholism and suicide through a book.

David Burnett is a veteran of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and author of "Making a Night Stalker." He struggled with alcoholism after leaving the service and experienced a wakeup call when a friend died in training.

Burnett had been keeping a journal at the suggestion of a Department of Veterans Affairs counselor, and he expanded that effort.

"Those journal entries manifested into about 40,000 words. And so when I found out about my buddy dying in September 2017, I said, 'I'm gonna combine all these journal entries and write a book,'" Burnett said.

The 40,000 words from the journals swelled to 136,000 words by the following January.

"Through that whole writing process, which was pretty cathartic for me, I was able to get out all the stuff I had bottled up inside for so long," he said. "It was such a weight off my shoulders and a relief to alleviate some of the things I was thinking about or seeing in my dreams."

After completing his draft, he sent it to the Pentagon for a classification review and was pleased that most of the book was declared safe to release. But making money in the arts and media still requires business acumen. Burnett priced out the cost of self-publishing his book, from cover art to getting a narrator for the audio version, and realized he would need help covering the costs.

So he built an Instagram following to 5,000 people before launching a Kickstarter campaign. When that failed, he grew his audience to 10,000 and relaunched with a new, more organized campaign that succeeded.

Since the release of the book, he says he's heard from a lot of veterans and civilians who can relate to his struggles, either through their own experiences or that of a family member. The book is currently in the top 100 on Amazon's U.S. Afghan War history list.

Service members and veterans who want to try out a career in the arts should start by deciding what they're interested in creating and researching the market. Sculptors, authors, painters and musicians all follow very different career paths, but can typically use their GI Bill benefits to get training at a college or university.

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