As our veterans return home from the Middle East and other conflicts across the globe, cities, towns, churches, civic organizations and families have found many ways to honor those who have heroically served our nation. While our expressions of gratitude are many and varied, three people in Maine have added a new dimension to the tribute for veterans in our state.
Indeed, about eight years ago, George and Donna Gunning from Windsor heard about an endeavor in Oklahoma called the Eagle Cane Project. The mission of the project was to help post-9/11 veterans who had trouble walking because of leg disabilities due to combat-related action by providing them with unique, hand-carved eagle canes. As a Navy veteran, George, along with his wife, Donna, who grew up in a Navy family, were both intimately familiar with the sacrifices and difficulties that accompany military service. The project touched their hearts and they quickly recognized it as an opportunity to give back to veterans in Maine.
They brought their own version of the project to the state – offering a personalized cane to any Maine veteran who had served anywhere in the world, in any conflict across the globe. And it wasn't long before the Gunnings were joined by Burt Truman from Hallowell, who spent two decades in the military – in the Navy, Army Reserve, and the Air National Guard. The trio work together on each cane they made – crafting them, carving and painting them, and personalizing each one by etching the veteran's name and molding medals to show their branch of service and any honors they received.
As impressive as each of these masterpieces are, the number that the trio has produced is even more astounding. The current count is 2,474 canes made free of charge and funded solely through donations.
And for all their hard work and dedication, the trio remains humbly adamant that they deserve no special recognition. Instead, they would rather the attention and admiration be directed towards the veterans receiving their canes, who have borne so much for our country. And that is the true magic of this project. It is all about recognizing our veterans, supporting them, giving them something to lean on – both physically and emotionally.
The bald eagle is a national symbol of freedom and independence, but with these canes, it has also come to symbolize the debt of gratitude owed to our nation's veterans. Each cane is a treasured reminder that someone cares, someone notices, and someone appreciates what they've done.
I've seen firsthand the powerful effect that these canes have. Earlier in March, I was meeting with members of the Maine Veterans of Foreign Wars, and one of the gentlemen had with him a beautifully carved cane that caught my eye. Thinking it was the only of its kind, I asked him where he found something so unique. Needless to say, I was shocked and impressed to hear that, although it was personalized, it was one of thousands made in the same Windsor workshop.
But more telling was how quickly and enthusiastically the VFW members jumped to explain where the canes came from, and how glowingly they spoke of the project. They knew the history of the project, they described the meticulousness of the craftsmanship down to the finest detail, and they quickly gave me George's name – their enthusiasm underscored their true appreciation for the support and recognition this eagle cane project in Maine had given them.Burt, George, and Donna's work is a true testament to the strength of our veterans' community in Maine, and that, really, is what it's all about.