Article - Woodworking is Therapy for Wounded Warriors

Woodworking is Therapy for Wounded Warriors

Rob Cosman's Purple Heart Program provides more than just free workshops for veterans


I recently had the pleasure of working with Rob Cosman and assisting him with his Purple Heart woodworking program for veterans. Twice a year Rob holds two of his week-long Training The Hand courses in Niagara Falls, Canada. Each class is limited to twelve students, and six benches are reserved for wounded and disabled U.S. and Canadian veterans. The veterans are part of Rob’s Purple Heart Program that aims to support veterans’ mental health by introducing them to the peace and calming effects of traditional hand tool woodworking. They attend the courses free of charge.

Being a recently retired U.S. Army Colonel and having attended his last year’s class, Rob invited me back as a teaching assistant and to serve as the class’s “Old Army dude mentor.” I thought I was there to help introduce traditional hand tool woodworking to veterans, but instead I walked away with a much deeper appreciation of how woodworking can help those who have sacrificed so much for us, and the debt of gratitude we owe our brave men and women in uniform.

Over two weeks, I watched a mix of 12 U.S. and Canadian veterans and 12 civilian woodworkers bond together and learn the craft of traditional hand tool woodworking. The wounded warriors, mostly in their 20’s, had served in Iraq or Afghanistan and had sustained both physical and mental injuries – but don’t tell them that! Their warrior spirit was infectious as they took to learning the subtles of sharpening, planing, and sawing like it was just another combat mission. Many of them had not touched wood since their shop days in high school. During the week-long course, the veterans and students learned how to sharpen, setup and use various hand planes to six square a board, handsaw and chiseling techniques, and how to make through dovetails. At the end of the course, they made a dovetailed bench hook starting from a piece of rough cut lumber.

On close observation a visitor to the class could see the effects of combat. Former U.S. Marine, Ivan’s, right leg was paralyzed from a sniper’s bullet (try planing or sawing on one leg!!!). Dan had been blown up by an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) and it took him an hour of stretching just to be able to grip a saw. Almost all the veterans struggled with some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Not once did you hear a complaint or a hint of self-pity; and when they opened up and told their stories, I could not help but get choked up.

Through individual donations, the charity of some local merchants, and a portion of the sales from his website, Rob provides each veteran with transportation, a week’s lodging, meals, professional instruction, camaraderie, and a toolbox full of quality hand tools to continue their craft and therapy back home. Probably the best tribute I heard during the week is from one of the civilians attending the class who said, “I came here for the woodworking but I leave with 6 new friends and an great appreciation for what our vets do for us.”