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Vet uses metal art to give back to service members

Ryan Courtney of Rosemount makes patriotic art from sheets of steel and sells them to benefit veterans suffering from PTSD.1 / 2
Ryan Courtney’s children Emma, 11; Brittany, 13; Alex, 8; and Haylee, 7, present Rosemount police officer Brad Roschen with one of Courtney’s metal designs at Leprechaun Days.2 / 2

Solid steel, cut, scorched by fire and shaped into an American flag. In a way, Ryan Courtney’s art is a reflection of himself.

A soldier in the Navy and Army National Guard, he’s been battle tested, battle-scarred and scorched by PTSD. But using art, he has found a way to let his patriotism and compassion for humanity shine once again.

Courtney, 37, an estimator and designer for JML Fabrication in Farmington, makes American flags and other designs out of sheets of metal. After donating several of them, he’s started selling them and giving 10 percent of the profits to an organization that helps veterans with PTSD.

“I do this because I really believe in it,” he said. “I feel fortunate that I was able to take advantage of assets given to me. I reached out and there was a hand to help me.”

Now, he’s hoping to be that helping hand for others.

Courtney joined the Navy right out of high school in 1997. He picked Puerto Rico because, as he said, “who wouldn’t want to go to the Caribbean?”

His five-year tour, however, was anything but a vacation.

His unit guarded Vieques Island, an island that was used for munitions testing by the United States government. The testing, he learned later, had polluted the surrounding environment, causing many of the residents to be sick or die from lead poisoning.

He was there when the Puerto Ricans began protesting the U.S.’s use of the island, protests that turned violent. The Navy finally pulled out in 2003, turning the island back into a wildlife refuge.

He was shot at multiple times and had experiences that still give him nightmares.

“I really struggle with unnecessary death,” he said. “And when it’s based on lies and deceit, that’s worse.”

He said the violence was downplayed in the news. He also did not know until later that the island he was protecting was making the natives sick.

“We were actually killing people there. People were dying for no good reason,” he said.

When he came back he tried to put it all behind him and move on. But his brain did not comply.

“I just wanted it to go away,” he said. “But it doesn’t. It’s tough to sum it up simply, what your brain does to you.”

To cope, he drank.

“I had a lot of nightmares. I still don’t sleep,” he said.

His marriage fell apart as the PTSD settled in. He sought counseling and was, with time, able to get his life back together.

Just for fun, he made an American flag out of metal as a father’s day present. His dad encouraged him to make more, so he did.

As he was sitting around the table with his four children at their home in Rosemount earlier this summer, he asked them what they had ever done to give back to others. They could only think of one thing they’d done years ago.

It was a moment of clarity for Courtney. He gathered up his kids and took them to find a Rosemount police officer at Leprechaun Days. They presented him with one of Courtney’s metal flags made special with a thin blue line heat treated along a stripe.He had his children thank the officer for his service.

That was the beginning of his new purpose.

Now, he designs flags on a CAD software and cuts them out at the metal fabrication shop where he works.

Then he brings them home to his garage, where he buffs the white stripes to make them shine, heat treats the blue field of stars to alter the metal’s color, and paints the red stripes.

He’s begun selling his creations for about $150 on his Facebook page titled “Playin’ with Fire—Metal Art.” He donates a portion of his sales to Soldiers 6, which provides service dogs to honorably discharged veterans in Minnesota.

Courtney says when he sees a vet suffering from PTSD, he understands.

“They’re not complete and not whole,” he said. They’re much like his metal American flags with the stars cut out.

 “It’s so familiar. I can relate too much,” he said. “If I can help just one of them get a service dog, that’s what I want.”