Country-music artists have always nurtured a special bond with U.S. veterans. For Chris Stapleton, the issue is a particularly personal one.
“Both of my grandfathers fought in World War II so that I hopefully wouldn’t have to,” says the Grammy winner. “There’s something so selfless about volunteering to do that work. You’re laying yourself out there for people you don’t even know, and I have a great deal of respect for that.”
Stapleton has taken a double-edged approach to supporting vets. First, his Outlaw State of Kind Fund funnels money to a variety of programs to support, and in some cases rehabilitate, the men and women whose military careers have ended. But he also offers his own form of service, performing for veterans groups whenever possible. He took part in Joe Walsh’s 2018 VetsAid benefit concert in Tacoma, Washington (helping raise almost $800,000), and also appeared at the U.S. Veterans Administration and Department of Defense Suicide Prevention Conference in Nashville this summer.
Stapleton says it’s important to show support for all veterans, but especially those suffering the effects of PTSD and other mental illnesses.
“There’s lots of important work that needs to be done, but this is certainly, to me, one of the most important issues that we face today in the United States,” he says. “Taking care of these guys is important.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 17 veterans die by suicide every day — a number that doesn’t include active-duty service members or those in the National Guard or Coast Guard who were never federally activated. In 2017 (the year with the most recent information available), 6,139 vets took their own lives. Taken against the total U.S. population, those numbers show male veterans committing suicide 1.3 times more than non-veterans, while females are 2.2 times more likely to take their own lives than their civilian counterparts.
The reasons are complex, but there is growing frustration that more is not being done to prevent these deaths. A federal investigation last year found that “money and effort expended by the [Veterans Administration] on suicide prevention outreach dropped significantly in 2017 and 2018, despite it being touted by the past two VA secretaries as their top clinical priority.” That’s where entertainers like Stapleton come in. His goal is to raise boots-on-the-ground awareness.
“I don’t want to speak to all of the frustrations because I am not a veteran myself,” he says. “But I can see that there’s a need, and it’s a worthwhile endeavor to try and rectify that. Some things you can look at and people can debate the validity of the need, but I think everybody can pretty much agree on this one.”
Although he admits it can sometimes be a difficult subject to address, Stapleton says veterans deserve the respect of confronting a life-and-death matter head on. At the Suicide Prevention Conference in August, he started off his set with a joke. Not to make light of the issue, but rather to normalize it, and let those in attendance know he was in their corner.
“My joke to them when I walked in there was, ‘You hired the guy who plays the most depressing music to play the suicide prevention conference,’” he says with a laugh. “It’s important to show up for those things, even when on paper they seem hard. I got more out of playing that 30 or 40 minutes with an acoustic guitar than I sometimes do with a full band. You go out and try to be the best version of what you can be every night, but sometimes you might lose sight of what you’re actually there to do, which is to help people and heal people.… It was very humbling and grounding.”
Through the Outlaw State of Kind Fund, Stapleton and his wife Morgane have supported a number of veterans-focused charities. Give An Hour provides vets and their families with free, confidential mental healthcare. Team Rubicon organizes disaster response crews to help integrate veterans back into civilian life. Companions for Heroes matches shelter and rescue animals with vets, active duty military, and first responders, K9s for Warriors provides service dogs, and BraveHearts gets veterans on horseback as a form of therapy.
Stapleton plans to continue helping out whenever possible — even going so far as to ask any veterans org with a funding shortfall to reach out directly — and he’s got some prominent role models to emulate. After taking part in Walsh’s VetsAid, his drive to advocate was only strengthened.
“It was amazing for me to see guys like Joe Walsh, James Taylor, Ringo Starr, Don Henley,” Stapleton says. “Those guys have earned every right to sit on the sidelines and maybe not do as much, but they’re there. They’re showing up. To see artists of that stature still be willing to step up and give their time, it’s a tremendous example for guys like me. … I want to hopefully last long enough that I can still be doing good like that when I get to the point they’re at.”