West Bloomfield Beacon
MADISON HEIGHTS, Mich. — It's a way to show support for veterans - both figuratively and literally.
The Patriot Cane/Memorial Project creates walking sticks for wounded servicemen. Each cane features an intricately carved eagle-head at the top and detail along the shaft, tailored to the history of the vet who receives it.
Originally started by the Eastern Oklahoma Wood Carving Association in 2004, the project came to Michigan in 2007. Since then, more than 1, 800 canes have been distributed to servicemen statewide. And demand for them is high. So high, in fact, that new applications are no longer being accepted. There is already a backlog of about 250 applications in the process.
The canes are created by volunteers from the 43 clubs comprising the Michigan Wood Carvers Association. All told, there are around 1, 200 members in the coalition.
The most local club is the Metro Carvers of Michigan, who hold a convention in Madison Heights each spring. They are also the largest, at around 120 members.
Michigan's cane operation is unique in that they not only make canes for vets with combat injuries, but for those with non-combat injuries, as well.
World War II vets and the wounded out of Afghanistan are top priority. The World War II vets are dwindling, and the Afghanistan vets need support here and now.
"I really sincerely wish we could honor all the requests, but we're a good six to eight months behind," said Paul Blanchard of Rochester Hills, himself a Korean War vet and a former president of the Metro Carvers of Michigan. "We're working as fast as we can, but there are only so many of us volunteers."
He said they don't want to forget the Vietnam or Korean vets, either, or the peacetime vets that never saw combat. But it will take time to get to them all. Should a vet pass away before receiving the cane, it would go to the family members.
Each cane is unique. The eagle head is whittled separately from the rest of the cane, while the shaft is wood-burned and decoupaged with everything from the vet's name, rank, unit and company, to his or her badges, medals, awards and the veteran's poem.
The vet may also opt to include other details like the name of a buddy who was wounded or killed, or the name of their ship, if they were in the Navy.
Since a separate carver usually does the eagle-head - typically from basswood, but sometimes butternut - his or her name is carved into the cane, along with a number that signifies its one-of-a-kind nature. The canes come with a gold parchment certificate that includes all of the information about the vet on one side and the full list of contributing carvers on the other.
"We run all the information off so the vet knows who made each aspect of the cane, and even provide the number and address (of each carver) if they want to send thankyou letters," said Bill Phillips of Almont, state co-chair of the cane project alongside Dave Copeman of Sterling Heights. The statewide organization furnishes the individual cane parts to the different clubs, which they craft and return for assembly. When possible, it's preferred to have the eaglehead made by a carver who lives in the same community as the vet.
The act of giving canes to wounded servicemen is a tradition that has its roots in the Civil War, and it is one that remains powerfully affecting today. The Michigan Wood Carvers Association and its affiliate clubs are able to render this service for free because of the donations they receive from people who believe in thanking veterans.
They've also been able to co-sponsor the Honor Flight, sending 12 vets each year to the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C. Phillips said he's always touched when they present the canes and certificates to servicemen and their families, whether it's in the vet's home or at a hospital, senior center or assisted-living facility.
"Not too long ago, my wife and a couple of the other carvers that made a cane were invited to a surprise party for a Korean veteran who was sitting in a wheelchair," Phillips said. "His daughter said we were visitors, and we presented the cane to him.
"He was crying as we went over everything on the staff, but the most encouraging and rewarding part for us was the fact that, before we left, here are all of his grandkids sitting at his feet and looking at his cane and asking, 'Grandpa, what's this?' And his daughter, who made this party possible, said this was the first time he ever talked to the family about what he went through."
The canes, then, also preserve the memory of a vet's service for future generations.
"That man passed away six months later," Phillips said. "Had we not done what we did at that time, those grandchildren would've never heard what they did from their grandfather. To see these grandkids at his feet, him leaning over, explaining what this means, what that means, it was very touching to see."
For more information about the club, including how to donate to the Patriot Cane/Memorial Project, visit www.miwoodcarvers.com.