Veterans Healing Through Woodworking

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Working with hand tools could be called quiet woodworking. To a wounded veteran, sometimes that quiet and the focusing of the mind is just what he or she needs to see beyond the physical and mental pain of their day-to-day life. An idea sparked from meeting a former Marine in March 2016 who was wounded from an improvised explosive device (IED) in Iraq. This chance meeting ultimately sent “Hand Tool Coach” Rob Cosman on a mission to help these warriors find peace and solitude through the craftsmanship of hand tool woodworking. “I was inspired to help these vets suffering from both physical and mental injuries like PTSD,” he explained. “Our goal is to provide the exposure, motivation and training to those who may be interested in pursuing this craft.”

Through his Purple Heart Project, Rob has seen first-hand the beneficial effects woodworking provides these brave men and women. “It’s just hand tools. There’s no dust, there’s no danger, there’s no noise. In fact, you could call it therapeutic,” he explained. Army veteran Mark from Idaho explained how it felt to return home after serving in Afghanistan, “You suddenly find yourself in a really disruptive life that you’re not used to visiting. Things are different. Life is different.” Woodworking and using hand tools in particular has been a turning point for many vets facing daily battles once they are back from active duty.  

Rob is not alone on his mission to serve veterans suffering from the effects of combat. Retired U.S. Army Colonel Luther Shealy is an integral part of the program. After retiring in 2012, Luther pursued his long-delayed desire to learn woodworking. After taking one of Rob’s dovetail classes at his local Woodcraft store in Seattle, he was hooked. He went on to attend Rob’s one-week “Training The Hand” course. It was at that course that Luther helped Rob with his first disabled veteran. Since then they have partnered together to expand the Purple Heart Project.  “He is able to relate to the veterans in a way that I know nothing about. The vets really admire him and respect him,” Rob said.  

One gentleman told Rob that since he got involved in hand tools, it was the first time he had any peace from the physical and mental pain that he deals with as a result of his injuries. “I thought about that and I thought maybe there’s something we should be doing to help all these wounded vets who had never had any exposure to woodwork,” Rob said.   

Another veteran sent Rob a note of thanks, saying, “You’ve not only taught me how to work wood with hand tools, you’ve also shown me a way to work through my PTSD. Thank you for that. That is something that I could never repay you in any lifetime. My wife told me that since I’ve started using only hand tools, I’ve become more relaxed and my nightmares have been reduced. So she sends her thanks as well.”

FREE ONLINE RESOURCES

As part of Rob’s mission, he offers his online classes completely free to disabled veterans. “We run an online workshop where we broadcast a half-hour training episode five days a week. It’s a membership event but we give that free to any wounded vet to give them a little bit of exposure to this and some of the training and some of the motivation,” Rob said.

Whether you are a veteran or a civilian, the program has tremendous value. “Changes in our education system decades ago means very few of the under 40 generation have had any exposure to manual skills like woodwork, metalwork or machine shop,” Rob said. Through these training episodes, he teaches complete furnituremaking from start to finish, with detailed steps and instructions along the way.

A free lifetime membership for all that training, valued at $400 per year, is available to disabled veterans upon acceptance. It’s as easy as signing up online at http://robcosman.memberlodge.com/vets

PURPLE HEART PROJECT

Taking the idea a bit further, Rob is now offering four weeklong courses a year (April and November) called “Training the Hand,” which are open to six veterans and six civilians per session. What started as a one-time event turned into something much larger and more important – The Purple Heart Project.

PHOTO: Rob’s November class received donated chisels on day two. L-R: Greg (“Chuck”), Rob, Brad, Rick, Phillip, Andy, Marshall

The classes are held at Heartland Forest in Niagara Falls, Ontario, which also serves as a learning center for disabled children. Civilians can reserve their spots by paying the tuition fee, but US and Canadian wounded military veterans can apply to attend the five-day class at no cost. “We cover all of their expenses – airfare, hotel, tuition, meals – and we send them home with about $2,000 worth of quality tools to help them continue their craft at home,” Rob explained. But he doesn’t do it alone. Through generous donations of companies and individuals, the program has so far been able to completely sponsor the veterans for the first five classes that have been held or scheduled. The estimated cost per veteran to attend the weeklong training session is $3,000, in addition to the tools. “Some vets have extra needs like a traveling companion; the donations will cover all those costs so no one is excluded.” Local restaurants have also stepped up to provide free or reduced cost meals to feed the veterans each day during the training. His son Jake serves as teaching assistant and cameraman during the workshops. “He develops a good rapport with the vets. They like the ‘kid’!”

In the weeklong workshops, Rob teaches the class how to sharpen, how to use hand planes, how to use handsaws, and how to cut joints. “Essentially we give them a fundamental course that would allow them to then go home and actually start building furniture using just hand tools. And with the donations we receive, we are able to send the veterans home with good quality tools so they can get right to work,” he said.  

WOOD THERAPY

At the end of the week, the veterans leave with far more than hand tool skills and some tools. The distractive therapy of engaging the hand and the mind allows these vets to move past their pain, at least temporarily. “It takes their mind off it. It just changes their focus for awhile,” Rob said. “It’s something they can do in their garage; they can do it in their spare bedroom. They need the tools; they need the training. We can provide them both.”

Though many service members return home with physical injuries, the need for mental health awareness and assistance for veterans is also tremendous.

Disabled vet Bill from Nebraska said there is often a stigma with PTSD and other issues that aren’t visible. “A lot of people think maybe some are faking it because you can’t see a broken leg or missing limbs, but that is so far from the truth.” He found tremendous personal benefit from the class, beyond learning some new skills. “Everything we’ve done this week has contributed to my feeling of peace and being able to be useful again. Those people who are contributing to this, not only are helping us regain some of the peace that we have been missing in our lives, but we are given a sense of being valuable and able to do something.”

PHOTO: Disabled veteran Bill from Nebraska shown here with donated tools.

Veteran Shawn from Oklahoma has struggled with PTSD issues for about 25 years, although he didn’t recognize it until four years ago. Through years of marital difficulties, loss of jobs, substance abuse and anger that he couldn’t explain, he found himself looking for stress relief in all the wrong places. Leaving after a week of working with hand tools in the April class with Rob, he said, “Going home after this, I’m just ecstatic. There’s a lot of peace in working with wood. This part chokes me up … Standing at the workbench, my brain is calm. I can focus. The pain is gone.”

PHOTO: Shawn from Oklahoma "is one of our best success stories," Rob said.

For veteran Dan from Montana, the five-day class flew by. “I can honestly say I’ve never had a week in my life go by as quickly as this week has. With a lot of my medical stuff flaring up this winter, I’ve not been in a good place. It’s been a very, very tough winter. And I honestly don’t think I’ve smiled this much in quite a while. Genuine smile, not putting the mask on.”

He found that the repetitive action of hand planing allowed him to “get in the zone” so he could shut out other things and do a lot of thinking. “This has been so unbelievably meditative for me. I’ve actually had a couple of lightbulbs come on as far as my life is concerned and some issues that I deal with.”

PHOTO: Dan from Montana with a genuine smile!

After serving in Afghanistan, US Army veteran Mark from Idaho found himself in a spiral. He deals with PTSD and seizures, among other things, and said his medication profile is a laundry list. Trying to integrate back into society proved difficult. “I lost vision and I lost the forward momentum. I wasn’t looking farther ahead in my time management to my schedule or my life for more than a week,” he said. After starting woodworking full time several months ago, he noticed a shift.  “It was really woodworking that has brought my future back into focus. I would like to head back to school. I have goals to achieve and I’m starting to see 5, 10 years ahead again in my life. It feels like woodworking is the thing that’s been pulling me out of the pit.”

PHOTO: US Army veteran Mark from Idao

Former Marine Devon from New Mexico learned a great deal during his week of training and already had a project in mind when he returned home: a crib for the baby he and wife Ellie are expecting in November. Of his experience, he said, “It’s been a blessing. It’s way more than I expected and it’s just been amazing.”

He has some advice for other disabled vets: “If you’re sitting around just fighting your battles in your head and you got nothing to do to take your mind off it, woodworking is a great way to put your hands to work. Do something productive. Learn something new. Keep your mind busy.”

PHOTO: Former Marine Devon from New Mexico 

VETERANS and CIVILIANS

When asked why he chose to structure the class with six veterans and six civilians, Rob replied, “I need missionaries to help further the cause. There is no better way to get and train them than to recreate what happened to me. Simply put, meet one of these brave warriors, and you will no longer consider their plight someone else’s problem.” In fact, a recent attendee who had previously been somewhat aloof earlier in the week presented Rob with a check for $1,500 to put towards the cause on the last day of class.

PHOTO: April 2017 - Vets and civilians dining together at Falls Manor Restaurant, which fed the veterans for free every morning. 

Interacting with each other over the course of five days at meals and field trips has a profound effect on many attendees – veterans and civilians alike.  Mark, a civilian from Ottawa, signed up for the class solely to learn some hand tool skills. “I was here for me and to develop a skill that I didn’t know before. But the thing I really took away was being able to hang out with these guys. It was a really, really touching week. It was just really organic and you really get to see how important it is for them to be able to come and do this. The atmosphere is just unbelievable.

Nancy, a therapist from Michigan, said after spending the week with what she now calls “a big family,” she began to appreciate the veterans’ plights. “It’s been very humbling. I’ve been touched just being here this week around them. I want to somehow keep being involved.” Being the only woman during that particular class was not an issue. “The guys have been great but I think it’s because of the environment that Rob creates which is very caring and warm and fun. It’s just been a joy. I’ve loved every minute of it. And I’m going to keep coming back to any class he offers.”

For disabled vet Mark, he always appreciates time spent with fellow service members. Every time I’m around other veterans, I get greater clarity of my own issues. Comradery with the friends and it helps me when I say my issues out loud and someone else totally understands it.”

SPECIAL THANKS

Rob makes sure the veterans who attend his classes know the reason they are able to be there is through the funds and tools that he receives as donations. Dan is one of the many benefactors who appreciate the opportunity. “This is something I get to take home. I get to teach my wife who likes to tinker around with things as well, and it’s activity that I know we’ll enjoy together as a couple. I think it’s more than just a unilateral experience; I think it’s much deeper than that for myself. The people that gave money for this, thank you so much for helping the vets like me. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.”

Special thanks to these companies for initial funding and tool donations to kick-start the Purple Heart Project: 

HOW TO HELP

With each note of thanks Rob receives from veterans who watch his online workshops or attend his classes, he truly appreciates the need for the program to keep going and growing. He sees his part as a way of thanking veterans for their services and sacrifices. “When someone tells you your program changed their life, well, I can’t just stop doing that. This is what I am called to do,” he said.

To donate to the Purple Heart Program, go to Rob’s GoFundMe page at https://www.gofundme.com/woundedwarriorsfund.

For veterans like Mark from Idaho, it is important in support of veterans’ mental health to continue to provide these opportunities. “I think if two years down the road, I hear that this program stops, I’m going to be pretty sad, because it was that good for me and it can do a lot for others as well.”

PHOTO: Jake, Rob and Luther proudly display the military patches they have received from service members who have attended classes. 

Woodworking Adventures blogger Frank Byers caught up with Rob, Luther and Jake at the Woodcraft Vendor Trade Show in June. Listen in as they share their experience with the Purple Heart Project

Woodcraft salutes Rob Cosman and crew, along with the many generous donors for their contributions to The Purple Heart Project. 

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