Retired US Army Veteran Turns Old Christmas Trees Into Free Canes For Veterans In Need
On the brink of taking his own life, one army veteran finds new life in discarded Christmas trees.
US veteran Jamie Willis knows what it’s like to struggle with depression and PTSD. After serving 8 years in the army, he suffered a debilitating back injury from a vehicle accident during Operation Desert Storm.
The accident left him temporarily paralyzed and permanently disabled, unable to work.
“I went through depression bad. There were times when I almost took my own life,” Willis, 50, told PEOPLE.
For years, Willis struggled to find some purpose and meaning in his life. Until a faulty cane given to him by the Veterans Affairs helped him discover his new marching orders.
How a Disabled Army Veteran Found New Life in Old Christmas Trees
After the cane he received from Veterans Affairs kept collapsing, he decided to find an alternative. He turned to a Florida organization called “Free Canes for Veterans” which was giving out 500 handmade wood canes.
Unfortunately, however, the organization’s waiting list was full and there were none available. Rather than leave Willis empty-handed, the head of the organization, Oscar Morris decided to do him one better — he taught him how to make his own.
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“Making the canes actually brought me back from the brink of suicide. I don’t know what it was, but I think this is my actual calling,” Willis said.
One cane turned into another, and then another, and then another. He branched off and started his own Free Canes for Veterans in Central Texas, working out of his garage in Copperas Cove, Texas.
Since whittling his first cane in 2016, Willis has made and delivered canes to veterans all over the world. By December 2019, more than 200 people had received one.
And the best part? They’re all made from old, donated Christmas trees.
How Old Christmas Trees Are Helping Veterans in Need
Each tree is the equivalent of about one cane, which takes Willis approximately 40 hours to craft. The wood is stripped and dried out for 6 months before being sanded and shaped by hand. Every cane is different.
Willis makes each one according to the recipient’s height and adds personal touches, including their branch of the military and pins and badges that align with their service.
He then packages and ships the cane to the veteran who will use it. He told CNN that while he sometimes asks them to cover shipping, he covers all other costs from out of his own pocket as well as donations. He also pays for shipping if the veteran can’t afford it.
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Needless to say, the veterans love them. But it’s not just because they make walking easier; it’s so much more.
The canes help the veterans stand a little taller — in stature and in self-worth.
“I can take this tree, I can strip it down, decorate it back up, give it back to that veteran, and show them that just like that tree was, you’re still strong, you’re still sturdy, you’re still worth something,” Willis said.
Business is Booming
Since his story went viral in 2019, donations of wood came pouring in. Even Home Depot and Lowes got in on the action, donating hundreds of Christmas trees. Willis’ work spread like wildfire, and he turned it into a nonprofit organization. He runs it with the help of family and friends and nearly 60 volunteers.
In October 2021, he had a waitlist of over 800 people and counting.
Willis says that as much as the canes are precious gifts to those who receive them, he’s the one who benefits the most. “It’s like I’m overwhelmed with joy and happiness,” he said.
He’s finally found peace and he hopes that his fellow veterans can too. “There was a time in my life where I wanted to take my life like some of my fellow veterans have, so I’m hoping this can help them too.” He added that he hopes his story can be an inspiration to others who may be struggling. “I’m hoping getting the recognition out there, they will turn to something like this instead.”
Willis never imagined that life would have brought him here, but he’s happy it did. He is breathing new life into old Christmas trees in the most amazing way and in turn, those trees are breathing life right back.