AIR FORCE DISTRICT OF WASHINGTON --
How does a block of wood become a physical and psychological support system for a wounded veteran?
With the woodworkers who volunteer their time and talents to carve out a customized piece for the ones who deserve it most.
Master Sgt. Bruce Stohlman, Jr., Bolling Air Force Base Joint Visitor Center superintendent, who volunteers his skills hand-carving canes for wounded veterans through the Eagle Cane Project, is one of those woodworkers.
The Eagle Cane project was started in 2004 by an Oklahoma woodworker named Jack Nitz, who was inspired by a national news story on returning veterans suffering limb loss, with the idea of demonstrating support for wounded veterans. Since then, the Eagle Cane Project has spread from the Eastern Oklahoma Woodcarvers Association and become a nation-wide network of carving associations.
One such group is the Northern Virginia Woodcarvers, to which Sergeant Stohlman belongs. The group works closely with the Capital Area Woodturners, hand-carving the handle of each cane, shaped like an eagle's head, and adding decorations and ornamentation after the Capital Area Woodturners make the cane shafts.
"I've been into woodworking since I was a kid, and this project is such a worthwhile cause," said Sergeant Stohlman.
The Northern Virginia Woodcarvers is comprised mostly of retired military members from every branch of the service. Sergeant Stohlman, who first joined the group almost two months ago, is currently the only active-duty military member out of the group of about 20 members.
"I found out about the Eagle Cane Project through one of the members of the group who works at the Woodcraft store in Springfield," he said. "I was buying supplies and he knew I was in the military and told me about the program."
Though Sergeant Stohlman is an amateur woodcarver working on his first eagle head cane handle, he is also a semi-professional pyrographer, or wood burner. He submitted two pieces to a recent Northern Virginia Carvers contest to win first and second place and best in class.
The Eagle Cane Project is an off-shoot of Soldiers' Angels, a non-profit organization providing aid and comfort to United States servicemembers and their families. Founded by the mother of two American soldiers, Soldiers' Angels is an international volunteer-led organization that sponsors more than 30 teams and projects including Adopt a Soldier, Blankets of Belief, Ladies of Liberty and Memorial Portraits. The organization has nearly 200,000 volunteers who assist veterans, wounded and deployed personnel and their families in a variety of unique and effective ways.
When possible, canes are made by woodworkers in the veteran's home state and presented in person. Otherwise, Soldiers' Angels covers the cost of shipping the canes, valued at roughly $150, to their recipients. Since February 2007, Soldiers' Angels has shipped more than 200 canes for the Eagle Cane Project nationwide.
Sergeant Stohlman said each cane can take up to two months to complete, but once the cane is finished, it can last a lifetime if it's well cared for.
The only stipulation for receiving an eagle cane is that the recipient must have earned a Purple Heart.
"Soldiers and Marines are the ones who mostly get these canes, unfortunately, because they're the ones mostly getting hurt," he said. "You can tell how much it means to them. It really excites them."
Army Spc. Anthony Comeau, 10th Mountain Division, agreed.
"I'm very big on custom-made things," he said. "I like having things that are unique to me."
Specialist Comeau broke several bones in his left leg while deployed with his unit to Afghanistan. He has been receiving treatment for his injuries at Walter Reed since July.
"This is a great bunch of young men and women," said Maj. Gen. Victor Hugo, retired.
General Hugo is a member of the Chapter 11 Special Forces Association and helps Northern Virginia Woodcarvers present canes to their recipients once they're completed.
"It's a humbling experience. I've never talked to anyone here who hasn't been upbeat and had a great attitude. I just want to thank them for everything they do."
For more information on the Eagle Cane Project and other Soldiers' Angels programs, logon to www.soldiersangels.org