Wounded veterans find peace and healing through wood turning

Daily Herald Media
Keith Uhlig

Corey Richards was in the Michigan National Guard and serving in Afghanistan in 2009 when a blast from an improvised explosive device tore into his upper body.

“I really don’t remember what happened,” Richards said.

But Richards, now 24 and living in Wisconsin Rapids, lives every day with consequences of the blast and the injuries it caused. He suffers memory loss, both short- and long-term, and struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said. In addition, both of his shoulders were “messed up,” Richards said.

Contending with those wounds and illness is physically and emotionally draining in ways Richards cannot explain and few others understand. But on Thursday, Richards found peace and contentment as he stood behind a lathe and turned out such pieces as a wooden mushroom and the body of a pen. He was absorbed by the task in front of him.

“It just makes me really focused and not pay much attention to what’s around me,” Richards said. “It gets my mind off of other things that have happened in the past. ... It gives me nice quiet time.”

On Thursday, Richards was participating in the third of a three-day wood-turning seminar made possible by two volunteer woodworkers, the financial support of a local business and foundation and a growing veterans organization called Wounded Warriors in Action.

Wounded Warriors in Action was founded in 2007 by John McDaniel, a retired Army colonel and graduate of Oshkosh High School. McDaniel, an avid hunter and angler who loves the outdoors, was looking for a mission to complete in retirement, and he blended his passions together to help veterans who needed support after being wounded. Wounded Warriors started by taking the vets, free of charge, on hunting and fishing trips.

Warriors in Action has expanded to other activities, including horseback riding and car racing. The wood-turning lessons grew out of some of the hunting and fishing trips led by Todd Bohm of Kronenwetter. Bohm is an assistant principal at D.C. Everest Senior High School, but he’s also a hunting and fishing guide who has volunteered with Wounded Warriors in Action for more than five years. Bohm’s father-in-law and neighbor, Tony Kopchinski, helped guide some of those trips. Kopchinski also is an avid wood-turner.

After meeting McDaniel, Kopchinski offered to play host to wood-turning seminars for the veterans, and this week’s event was the result. Kopchinski and another wood-turner, Bob Stavron of Weston, both members of the Wisconsin Valley Woodturners, volunteered their time to teach Richards, his fiancee and caregiver Jessica Lochli, 19, and another wounded vet, Daniel Hinze, 47, of Racine.

Hinze, who was an Army staff sergeant, was crushed by a helicopter in 2009 in Afghanistan. He suffers from physical injuries from head to toe and has PTSD. Hinze met Kopchinski while turkey hunting and fishing with Bohm in spring 2013.

Learning to turn wood is therapeutic and a “stress reliever,” Hinze said. “You don’t have to think about what’s going on back home. You don’t have to worry about daily things. It’s something my hands can do that my brain can’t think of. So it’s like my hands talking.”

The veterans were put up at the Grand Lodge Waterpark Resort in Rothschild, thanks to a donation from the Creske family, owners of Wausau Tile, and The Bar in Rothschild donated several meals, Kopchinski said.

Wood turning is about the “best therapy they could have,” Kopchinski said. “I’m very surprised at how quickly they are catching on. They’ve made some terrific articles of wood already.”

For him, it’s a chance to give back to the men and women who sacrificed themselves for everyone in America.

“It’s the best feeling I’ve ever had,” Kopchinski said.

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