His day began with a simple and ordinary goal: Pour a concrete sidewalk. Magnus Johnson was part of a construction crew in Montana when, like it did for every other American, September 11th, 2001, changed his life. His crew stopped their work and in a crowded work truck listened to the early morning broadcast of the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center.

The son of a Welsh musician, Magnus spent much of his youth living and traveling the country in a van from gig to gig. Later, his mother married an electrical engineer who moved them from Montana to the oil fields of Alaska’s North Slope. Though a man of the trades and the outdoors, Magnus was never inclined toward a military career, nor was he from a military family. But the events of 9/11 connected with a part of him that couldn’t sit idly by when those around him were attacked.

A year later, he began a journey that would see him become part of  the U.S. Army’s elite Green Berets, complete multiple tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan and finally return him to the woods of central Indiana, where he again felt a call to support and heal those with whom he served through social impact art that brings veterans, civilians and communities together.

In Harm’s Way

His first tour as a newly enlisted U.S. Army combat engineer took Magnus to the violent streets of Ramadi, Iraq. Magnus served in direct-combat and unexploded ordnance caches roles that pitted young soldiers against a multinational, ideologically driven enemy who wore no uniforms, played by no rules and who used civilians as pawns in its bloody campaigns. Deeply affected by what he saw and experienced, Magnus felt there was more to be done. The first step was to return with a group of highly trained, professional soldiers tasked to take the fight to the enemy.

Magnus volunteered to become—and was ultimately selected, trained and deployed as—a Green Beret in the U.S. Army’s 3rd Special Forces Group. But despite his desire to do more, his warrior’s path was not without the psychological and emotional scarring that no normal human can avoid in a combat zone. After eight years and three tours, Magnus left the Army and returned to central Indiana, largely seeking peace and a degree of isolation.

As a civilian, the creative influences of his early childhood returned. Along with working in the construction and tactical training industry, Magnus began to fashion works of sculpture from iron and steel. It started simply, just as a hobby and a way to soothe his mind and cultivate a creative outlet. As a “Green Beret artist” his work began to get attention but his world again began to change.

Brothers In Arms

Shortly after leaving the Army, two of Magnus’ fellow soldiers committed suicide. Having sought a degree of solace in rural Indiana, Magnus was snapped back into a world from which he was peacefully trying to distance himself. But he was still a warrior, and his brothers needed him. So Magnus did what any experienced Green Beret would do; he adapted to his situation and found a way to fight an unconventional battle for the lives of American veterans through art.

The death of his comrades was no coincidence; they were representative of a national crisis. According to a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans who served in U.S. conflicts up to and including the recent wars in the Middle East are committing suicide at a rate of 22 per day, or 8,030 per year. They come from all branches, from the officer and enlisted ranks, and include the old and the young.

“I really just wanted to be alone,” recalled Magnus, “But I couldn’t sit by and watch the suicides continue without doing something about it. I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘What am I doing?’ The answer was nothing. I wasn’t very comfortable with that.”

RELATED: Forging A Community For U.S. Veterans

Elder Heart

Magnus formed a non-profit organization named Elder Heart. The concept comes from the process used by Native Americans to support their young warriors when they return to their communities.

“The Native American concept, and one shared with many warrior cultures in the past, was that a human being cannot go to war without getting some psychological and emotional dirt on him. The elders who have gone to war and returned are essential to the warriors’ return to society. The things one thinks, feels and experiences after combat are often beyond any single person’s ability to comprehend and process,” said Magnus. “We created Elder Heart to provide a mechanism that would both raise awareness of the veteran suicide crisis and provide an environment whereby veterans could work with civilians, artists and other veterans to create works of social impact art.”

The first step in the Elder Heart plan was to create a work of art that would symbolize the organization’s mission and be a catalyst for its growth. Magnus started locally. He had been working with Jim Connor, a former iron worker who had been working as a local artist for over 20 years. Connor incorporated Brown County, Indiana’s most prominent feature, the colorful fall leaves of its hardwoods that draw three million tourists per year to Nashville, Indiana, and the surrounding areas.

Impactful Public Art

Soaring is an 18-foot ascending helix of 22 swirling oak and maple leaves cut and ground from steel, all of it painted to match the leaves’ fall colors. Each leaf represents the daily loss of an American veteran’s life to suicide. “We wanted to think of a way where we can impact where we live. We can tell the story without it being super-nationalistic, without it being really dark and heavy,” said Magnus.

The visual message, both striking and subtle, not only required vision to conceive but determined political effort to bring to life. The civic leaders of Brown County had to make a decision to allow a centrally located monument become a reminder of an ongoing crisis. With the help of many in the local community, Soaring was approved and Magnus’ vision took  another step forward.

Magnus, Connor and several members of the community set to work fundraising and recruiting both veterans and civilians to support the project. Over three months, 25 volunteers worked on the project. The leaves’ curves were rolled at Midwest Metal Fabrication & Custom Rolling and then cut, ground and welded. Stems and veins were added and their final fall color paint was added by local painter Larry Webb.

Magnus noted, “About 65 percent of the people who worked on Soaring were civilians.” This number is significant because rather than use tax dollars to create a piece of art, Soaring was a grassroots effort that brought together members of the community who might not otherwise interact.

“Our warriors are a national asset and should be treated that way. The suffering many of them endured has led many to a deeper understanding of wisdom, strength and compassion. But most don’t respond to pity or want it. But when their community asks for their help, most want to get involved. Through this shared goal of public art, we create that opportunity.”

Sara Dawdy, the director of operations for Elder Heart, agrees. “Veteran suicide is a human issue, not a veteran or civilian issue. If you believe in humanity, that’s all we need.”

Building A Community

The work continues for Magnus as he creates individual art pieces and handmade tomahawks to raise money for Elder Heart. The organization also recently completed its second public art piece, a 6-foot granite memorial for a high school in Rhode Island to commemorate Robert Guzzo, a Navy SEAL who served in the War On Terror but was lost to suicide as a civilian.

“One year ago we began with one grinder in someone else’s garage. Today, we have two public monuments and several dozen handcrafted pieces sold to individual buyers,” said Magnus. Like the veterans who shape it, most of Elder Heart’s artwork is raw and visceral, owing largely to the ground or rough-cut metal and welded joints. But there are also subtleties of color and light in the hues created by the heat and friction of the metal-shaping process.

Elder Heart currently has several large public artworks in various stages of development across the country. To learn more about the organization, it’s mission, its art and how you can contribute, visit

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Spring 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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