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Craftsmen honor wounded heroes

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Photo by Kami Collins Keith Kollasch of Cedaredge is a member of the Grand Valley Woodturners, one of three Western Slope organizations that handcraft presentation canes to wounded veterans. On his lathe in his woodshop is the beginnings of a cane; he's h

A group of Western Slope wood craftsmen, with roots beginning in Cedaredge, is carrying on a very old tradition of honoring soldiers wounded in battle. Members of the Grand Valley Woodturners, Grand Valley Woodcarvers and the Black Canyon Woodcarvers handcraft beautiful wooden canes which are presented to local service men and women who have sustained injuries in combat.

The tradition began in the days of the Civil War, when men returning home from battle, most injured, many missing limbs, were presented a cane from community members. The canes often had an etched or carved eagle's head. In some Native American cultures, it is believed that when a warrior dies in battle, his spirit returns as an eagle, making the noble bird a symbol of bravery.

Several years ago, Cedaredge resident Keith Kollasch was reading an article in the magazine American Woodturner, the industry publication for the American Association of Woodturners. Having just started the Grand Valley Woodturners group in his own wood shop, and as president of the new group, Kollasch was looking for a project the Woodturners could do that would make a difference in the local community. In the magazine, Kollasch read about an Oklahoma man, a member of his local woodturners group, who started an Eagle Cane project in his community after American soldiers began returning home wounded in the conflicts after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Recognizing that veterans returning from the most recent wars sustained similar injuries to those long-ago men in the Civil War, Kollasch was inspired by the article to craft a cane of his own, which he brought to the members of the Woodturners. The group enthusiastically embraced the project, and members began hand-crafting the beautiful canes. Also a member of the Black Canyon Woodcarvers, Kollasch got that group involved by helping carve eagles on the canes.

"It's a real good project to honor and show respect to the veterans who've been injured in combat," Kollasch said. "We want to thank them for their service." The canes are hand turned by a member of the Woodturners, and are made out of quality, beautiful hardwood, such as oak, maple, walnut or sycamore. A member of the one of the woodcarvers group then finishes the cane off with a hand-carved rendition of an eagle's head on top of the cane, and also adds a few decorative touches. Red, white and blue rings are added to the cane, and in some cases, a ring of purple heart wood is also added,when the cane will be presented to a veteran who has earned the Purple Heart. Burned into the staff of the cane is the soldier's name, rank, unit and dates of service.

Kollasch was recently part of a presentation ceremony to a Mesa County veteran. "It's a rewarding feeling," he said. "You can see the emotion the vet expresses for being recognized for their service and for what they've gone through. Most of them are very grateful to get it, and we're quite proud to be able to do it."

From start to finish, each cane takes about five hours to craft, Kollasch said. While the canes are made to be a presentation-worthy keepsake, they are usable as well. One hundred percent of labor and materials for each cane is donated by club members. The project brings together three groups who produce an artistic representation of support and respect, club members say.

The canes are so beautiful that many people have asked club members if they can purchase one. But that isn't the purpose of these gifts, Kollasch said; the canes are meant to honor the sacrifice of a soldier. "These are for veterans only," he said. "We don't intend to sell them." However, the groups do accept nominations of returning wounded service members who reside on the Western Slope. To nominate a soldier to receive a cane, you can call Keith at 856-3632.

Since the groups began the Eagle Cane project in 2008, members have presented over 300 canes to servicemen and women on the Western Slope. The groups have presented canes to several World War II veterans and many Vietnam vets, but most recently have been presenting canes to veterans coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

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