ST. CLOUD, Minn. – Curt Hutchens spends much of his time carving wood and helping veterans.
He is the vice president of the Central Minnesota Wood Carvers Association and belongs to three more woodcarving clubs in Florida, where he spends a few months every year. He’s also the commander of American Legion Post 76 in St. Cloud. He helps at the St. Cloud VA Health Care System and works with student-veterans at St. Cloud State University.
In recent years, Hutchens has led a project that brings together both pursuits.
Hutchens and other members of the association, which he guessed is made up of “15 or 20 percent” veterans, carve honor canes for people who have received the Purple Heart. Hutchens said he has made about 40 canes in three years. In October, he delivered a cane as a surprise at the 90th birthday party of a former Army sniper.
“A vet has never asked for one,” he said. “It’s usually a friend or a relative or a spouse who wants to surprise them. … When you see their faces when they see they are being honored and rewarded, you’ll never forget it.”
The process for making the canes begins with Ken Ramler, a former member of the National Guard and a member of the carvers association. He carves the general shape of an eagle’s head out of a block of wood and drills a hole in the bottom of the head for the staff. Ramler said that he has carved about 40 of the heads since becoming part of the project and that the appreciation shown by those who receive the canes makes it rewarding.
“I was really amazed at how impressed they are, and how emotional it gets when they’re presented the cane,” he said. “And Curt gets me fired up, too. He’s one of these guys who gets going on a project and he just goes all out.”
Once Ramler has carved the outline of the head, it gets handed off to a member of the wood carving association at one of their weekly meetings at the Whitney Senior Center. That member then carves the general head shape, putting eyes, feathers, a beak and more into the wood, and painting it.
A local wood turning club makes the staffs for the canes, and then Hutchens and his team decorate the staff with ribbons, medals and other honors that the recipient earned in service. Hutchens burns descriptions of the various metals into the staff, and a tag on the staff is engraved with the recipient’s name and where they were wounded.
The canes are not necessarily sturdy enough for daily use, but are meaningful to the veterans who receive them.
“They’re symbolic, like a plaque,” Hutchens said.
Dan Joyce, another woodcarver and a board member at Post 76, said he has found the gifts tend to make veterans open up.
He said when he has handed over the cane to a veteran and begun talking to them about their experience, they often start telling stories that even their spouses, standing right next to them have never heard.
“They’re being recognized, so they’re finally opening up in a positive way,” Hutchens said. “And every one of these guys has an incredible story.”