When Army veteran Jamie Willis returned home from the Persian Gulf War, he was in a bad spot – he was semiparalyzed, in pain, and legally disabled, requiring a cane to walk.
The canes Willis received from the VA weren’t quite right, they either broke or weren’t functional enough, so that’s when Willis called Free Canes For Vets, based in Florida, to ask for some help.
“Make yourself a cane,” instructed Oscar Morris, founder of the organization. When Willis explained that he didn’t know how, Morris gave him a little bit of tough love and advice: “Just sit down and do it. Believe in yourself.”
And that’s what Willis did at his home in Copperas Cove, in Central Texas.
“I [whittled] a piece of wood for a few days,” he said, “and the next thing I knew, I had a cane.”
The nine year Army veteran, wounded in an accident in Saudi Arabia after his vehicle overturned in the run-up to Operation Desert Storm, had found his new calling as a cane maker.
Now, Willis has crafted over 400 canes, which he donates free-of-charge to veterans who could use them, decorating them according to the veteran’s branch of service. He has even made a cane for famous war correspondent Joe Galloway, who was awarded a Bronze Star for Valor in the Vietnam War for his participation in the 1965 Ia Drang Valley battle with the North Vietnamese.
“Jamie made me one helluva fine walking cane,” Galloway said in an email, reported Dallas News.
“All handcrafted and marked with 1st and 7th Cavalry crests and all the wars I covered listed on that stick.”
Back in December, 1,500 Christmas trees were donated to Willis, providing him with 50 pieces of wood to work with. Since then, a volunteer carved a load of canes made from diamond willow found in Alaska and British Columbia and asked if Willis could distribute them, while another man from Wisconsin drove down an entire trailer full of black walnut for Willis to use. Apart from these donations, Willis typically gathers cedar wood found near his home to craft the canes.
Willis’ goal is to carve 1,000 walking canes in 2020, and already has orders for 400. While he always gives away the canes for free, he has hopes to build a workshop for his endeavor, so his daughter has started a GoFundMe which can be found here.
“There’s no such a thing as a perfect cane,” Willis says.
“Just like a veteran. Every veteran is beat up, but every veteran is still useful, just like a cane is useful. I hope other people figure out how to do something for veterans to show them that they still matter.”