Brian “BR” McDonald ’01 jokes that when he was in an Army special operations unit, getting ready to jump out of an airplane from 12,000 feet, he didn’t tell the guy next to him that he was an opera singer.
Now he’s happy to tell the story of how a preacher’s kid with a talent for music went to Carolina, majored in music and religious studies, learned to sing like a pro, entered the military, spent years helping fight terrorists and now is turning his passion for the arts and veterans into a full-time venture.
McDonald’s career as an Army linguist and intelligence specialist helped prepare him to jump full-time into a unique venture, the nonprofit Veteran Artist Program (VAP). The organization, which McDonald founded in 2009, helps veterans launch (or re-launch) careers in the arts by connecting them to working artists.
“I do consider myself an entrepreneur,” says McDonald, who also earned an MBA from Loyola University Maryland in 2013.
Many veterans have drive and artistic skills, but their years of service have disconnected them from the professional networks working artists need.
“How do we transition from that heightened military deployment experience back into the arts?” McDonald asks.
VAP puts veteran artists and professional artists together on projects — performances, gallery exhibits, albums, films and more — to produce art informed by veterans’ experiences, and help provide them the professional connections they need. It’s also helping McDonald transition from life in the military and intelligence community back to the arts, the latest turn in his unusual life.
Path to Carolina
McDonald lived with his missionary parents in Taiwan for eight years as a child. He learned to speak Mandarin Chinese before moving to Virginia Beach, Va., in eighth grade. Throughout high school he sang in church and was involved in band, chorus and musical theater, and then entered Carolina as a dual music/religious studies major.
Terry Rhodes, a professor of music and senior associate dean for fine arts and humanities who directed McDonald in an opera workshop production of “The Magic Flute,” says he was a “talented and charismatic young man.”
Melissa Martin ’00, now voice lecturer in the department of music, starred as the romantic lead, Pamina, to McDonald’s Tamino in that Hill Hall production. “I really remember him as being very outgoing and having an infectious enthusiasm and passion for what we were doing,” she says.
McDonald also found time to moonlight in the Clef Hangers, a student a cappella group, serving as president his senior year. “It’s always been who I am to be doing a lot of things,” McDonald says. “Carolina offered me that opportunity. It was a perfect place to do a lot of different things.”
Learning the language of the military
After graduating in 2001, McDonald spent the following summer working at a church in the Washington, D.C., area as a youth minister and musician. He also toured with a band, and at one point found himself in Fayetteville, N.C., where he met some military linguists. Considering his own experience with languages, he pondered enlisting in the military.
The horror of 9/11 cemented his decision to enlist, and he entered the Army in January 2002. He spent two years studying Arabic at the Defense Language Institute, and eventually found his way into doing intelligence work in a special operations unit. His role was to provide intelligence support for “door kickers” — special forces units, such as elite SEAL teams, who go after terrorists.
McDonald left the Army in December 2008, but continued to work in intelligence as a private contractor until last year, when he made VAP his full-time job.
He now aims to grow VAP, doing more projects in cities across the country. He also hopes to expand the effort to Europe in the next few years. Ultimately the aim is to put veterans to work in the arts so they can share their perspectives and experiences.
“They’re always looking for these different, unique perspectives in the arts world,” McDonald says. “These artists, who now happen to be veterans, have developed this distinctive experience after 9/11.”
[ By Mark Tosczak ]
Published in the Spring 2014 issue | Tar Heels Up Close
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