In the first installment of our new conversation series with veterans, we sit down with the former Army sniper who is helping Colorado veterans with art, yoga, meditation, and community.
—Photo by Tylor Belshe
More than 37,000 active duty military personnel live in Colorado. We also boast a veteran population of more than 413,000. That means close to 10 percent of the Centennial State’s 5.3 million residents have served or are serving. Yet, too often, civilians’ only association with this population is through Hollywood films. This conversation series provides a different kind of connection. Roughly once a month, we’ll sit down with a veteran who’s having a positive impact in his or her community. We’ll talk about their experiences both in the military and after, and highlight the important contributions these valuable men and women make to their communities once they return home.
Editor’s Note: These conversations contain mature content and, occasionally, explicit language.
Art of War Project
Curt Bean was just 17 when he enlisted in the Army. The St. Louis native spent five years as an Army sniper and cavalry scout, including two year-plus deployments to Iraq, where he spent days at a time living outside the wire, leading missions with a small group of men. After moving to Denver in 2012 and going through the Veterans Affairs’ seven-week in-patient PTSD program, Bean founded the Art of War Project , an organization that provides veterans with alternative therapies for dealing with PTSD and other challenges related to their military service. Currently housed in the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1  on Santa Fe (the organization will be moving to a new space in January), Art of War has grown to include a volunteer staff of eight and provides weekly classes in everything from art and photography, to yoga and meditation—all free to veterans. Art of War also curates the gallery in Post 1, a collection of veteran-made art and photography that you can check out during the Arts District’s First Friday . Additionally, Bean runs biweekly art classes for veterans at the PTSD clinic he once attended. This is his story.
5280: Let’s start at the beginning. Why did you join the military?
Curt Bean: When I was a junior in high school, 9/11 happened. I remember lying in bed and watching them invade from Kuwait in night vision and thinking, ‘I should be there.’ I felt like I had the ability to serve and be a part of something larger than myself and do a greater good. I’d never really felt compelled to join the military until that happened.
What were you thinking about doing before?
I had no plans. I was not a great student. I was smart, but I slacked off because I could. I had all this energy and nowhere to focus it. The military helped me with that a lot.
What was your job in the Army?
A scout—a cavalry scout. Basically we’re the guys who go and clear routes and areas and make sure it’s safe for other people to come through. It was right up my alley: I was a hunter and fisherman and outdoorsman, so shooting was a large part of my life. I wanted to be a shooter. I was very able bodied, very physically fit, and active. I wanted to be on the front lines.
Tell me about your first deployment. Where did you go?
Mosul, Iraq. It was surreal. I had just graduated boot camp, and now I’m overseas. I’d never been out of the country before. I’d never even seen the ocean before. Our scout platoon had already left for Afghanistan, but the aviation unit attached to us was sent to Iraq, and for whatever reason, 12 to 15 of us scouts went to Iraq. So we had to form our own platoon. We found some trucks that people weren’t using. One had a plywood roof; none of them had doors.
This was 2003?
Yeah. So we had the mechanics make us doors. It was Mad Max–style; we just strapped things to it. One of the trucks was a pick-up truck, and the gunner in the gun mount in the back had to wrap his arm around this rope, so if he ever got hit he wouldn’t fling out; he would be caught by the rope. That’s how we rolled.
Are you kidding? Did other people have real equipment?
It was pretty basic at that time. It was early. It wasn’t out of the ordinary that people were scraping stuff together.
That didn’t scare you at the time?
No, I just thought, ‘This is normal. This is how we operate.’ The thing in the Army is you just fake it ’til you make it. You embrace whatever you’re doing and hope you figure it out—which helps you adapt and overcome any kind of situation you’re in. That’s why I’ve been somewhat successful with Art of War. I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’ve faked it until I found someone who does know what they’re doing who can help me out.
How long were you deployed?
They said a year, and we got extended to 13 months. Right after we got home, the chow hall we ate in got blown up—suicide bomber. Nine or 10 people died and a lot of people were injured. I had a welcome home party, and I remember sitting there celebrating and watching the news and being like, ‘That’s my chow hall.’
You went back a second time. When was that?
I went to sniper school in May 2006, and then deployed in August 2006. I was actually supposed to get out of the Army in August 2006. But I got stop-lossed [when the military retains troops beyond their contracted periods of service] for a year and a half, so I didn’t get out until February 2008.
Where did you go back to?
Baghdad. We lived outside the base for nine or 10 months. We were running missions outside the wire for two to three days at a time. I was leading a team of guys, planning missions, executing missions with a team of five people, which is the least amount of people you can have outside the wire. Most of them were older than I was.
You were still young…
Yeah, it was 2006. So I was 20 or 21. I was born in 1985.
So you’re a millennial.
I am not a millennial. F___ off with that. [laughs]
Point taken. So you’re there for a year…
We were supposed to be there for a year; we got extended for three months. The Army is the only one that does deployments that long. Everyone else does like eight-month deployments.
Why does the Army do longer ones?
Because they’re idiots.
Is that the official reason?
Yeah. [laughs]. It’s because they can. They’re huge units. They can support that. The Marines, Navy, and Air Force can’t really support those kinds of units because they’re so much smaller.
What were the hardest parts?
Losing guys. Dealing with that. Getting up and going on another mission afterward. There’s no break. We were living in an outpost in the worst part of our sector. Driving around was not an option anymore; we’d just get messed up. When you’re in the Humvee, you can’t really see. But when you’re on walking patrol, your head’s on a swivel the whole time looking for things. It’s weird, but walking was way safer than driving.
Were you scared?
Everyone’s scared. You don’t feed into the fears, but everyone has the reality that you could die at any moment. You get complacent, even when you’re getting shot at. You have to. You get pretty numb. You get over it. It’s Groundhog Day every damned day. You eat the same food; see the same people; do the same things.
Was there anything about that period that you enjoyed?
Our guys. Our guys were awesome. People don’t realize how close you become spending over a year with the same people every day. You sleep with them; you eat with them. You go through trials and tribulations with them. They know you better than anyone else knows you; those guys are your family. That’s one thing that I missed when I got out of the military—the camaraderie. Having that mutual respect for people; having that good group of guys who you can instantly rely on. That’s something I try to bring to Art of War.
Let’s talk about the Art of War Project. What’s your mission?
To provide creative outlets for veterans with PTSD and also veterans who don’t have PTSD but who just have barriers from the military. Along with creative outlets, we also have wellness, and that’s where meditation, yoga, and retreats come in. The goal is to put any kind of alternative therapy in front of veterans because there’s not one thing that’s going to reach everyone. You’ve got to use a shotgun to hit ’em rather than a .22. Give them as many options as you can.
And this comes from your own experience dealing with PTSD?
Yeah. I moved here in 2012 as a way to get into the fire department. I thought the brotherhood and the physicality of it would be really great for me. But I came to the reality that being a firefighter was not going to be good for my PTSD. Just seeing awful things all the time—car wrecks and bodies and people in their worst possible situations. At the time, I was working for the YMCA. I was coordinating all the classes, all the personal training, which should be manageable for me. It should be a no brainer. But I was struggling. Every small problem was a really big problem. Even returning emails. These things would become overwhelming for me; it would seem so large that I wouldn’t even know how to tackle it. That’s when I entered into the in-patient PTSD program [through the VA].
Tell me about that experience.
It was brutal. It’s a tough program. You literally talk about and work through your worst possible scenarios from overseas. I was bitter and angry and pissed the entire time. I was doing art during my off time, and I was always fiending for it. I was always ready to get home to do art. I figured I could be doing it during the program and really benefitting from it.
So when you got out…
I wanted other veterans to have that realization also. And I felt art was a good vehicle for that. I knew the [VA’s] Vet Center had a PTSD group that met every week. I asked if I could come and show them how to do art. I did that for six months or so. It went really well. So I approached the in-patient PTSD program. That went really well, too. Then I started doing classes at Hope Tank  once a month, because a lot of veterans don’t want to access the VA center. And then eventually the VFW bought this building [Post 1], and Michael Mitchel asked me if I wanted to do what I was doing here. And here we are.
Why don’t veterans want to access things through the VA?
The biggest problem is red tape. What we’re trying to promote next month is this No Red Tape [social media] campaign. So veterans know that they can just access these resources and show up to things and get immediate help instead of waiting.
What do you wish you could tell veterans who are not currently seeking resources?
I wish they knew to deal with things sooner rather than later. You can avoid it [PTSD] for a while, for a long time really, but your quality of life is going to be decreased. You’re not going to be an active part of your community or your family.
What do you wish the public knew about veterans that they don’t, or what misconceptions do you want to set straight?
Well, I think people think that everybody with PTSD is just one freak-out away from murdering the populace, which is not true. Some people also think that people with PTSD are a lost cause, that we should just medicate them, which is a terrible way to look at it. By supporting them and giving them ways to be successful, veterans can be a huge resource to their communities and their families. They have the skills and knowledge to be successful in a lot of different arenas, and but not unless the community supports them and not without resources.
Those resources being…
Alternative programs. The more veterans who use those programs, the more funding they get. That’s another thing veterans need to realize. They need to use these programs. They’re not taking away from somebody else. A lot of veterans think, ‘I don’t want to go do this because that means someone else couldn’t go if I went.’ Go do it, and next time they’ll have more spots available.
What’s next for Art of War?
Our long-term plan is to have a property somewhere in the mountains and have veterans access all these different forms of alternative therapies in one location. So if a vet in Massachusetts says, ‘I want to try all these things,’ you fly him to Colorado for a week, and you try everything and see what works for him. Then he takes those things and uses them in his own environment.
What are some things that 5280 readers can do to help?
Volunteering is always important. In volunteering, you really see how the program works and how it can be successful. Obviously, financial support is important. But I would rather see people buying T-shirts and supporting us that way than just giving us money, because when they’re wearing the T-shirt ($25) , they’re going to talk to other people about what we’re doing. That’s kind of my whole thing: impacting the community. Everyone has some kind of skill they can give back. If everyone could take their little contributions and put them out there, the whole community would be so much richer. If everyone in the world did that once a month, that would add up to something huge.
That sounds like something that’s been a part of your perspective for a while. You said you joined the military to be a part of something bigger…
Yeah, I mean I had all this energy and gumption to do something. I received a lot of help myself, and I appreciate that greatly, and that’s really why I wanted to start doing what I do. Veterans thrive on community. And we have that here. I had my mom in town over the summer, and we went up to Gold Hill Inn and had dinner. There were probably 12 to 15 of us. My mom said, “How do you know all these people?” And I looked around, and I realized they all came from Art of War.
Visit the Art of War Project’s Facebook page  to learn more about how you can contribute.
(Read "A Warrior's Creed" )
If you know a Colorado veteran doing inspiring work in his or her community, let us know by emailing Kasey Cordell. 
Follow senior editor Kasey Cordell on Twitter @KaseyCordell .