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America Supports You: Eagle Cane Project Honors Combat-Wounded Troops

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

FORT BELVOIR, Va., May 15, 2007 – Two local woodworking groups followed a Civil War custom today by presenting a ceremonial cane to a soldier who lost his leg in Iraq.

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Retired Army Lt. Col. Dennis Walburn, who lost a leg while deployed to Iraq and now serves as deputy chief of operations for the Army’s Rapid Fielding Initiative, accepts an eagle cane from the Northern Virginia Carvers and Capital Area Woodturners, Inc., during a ceremony at Fort Belvoir, Va. Photo by Donna Miles

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The groups seek to extend the ritual to all combat veterans who have suffered traumatic leg, foot or hip injuries in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Northern Virginia Carvers and Capital Area Woodturners, Inc., presented an “eagle cane” to retired Army Lt. Col. Dennis Walburn, now deputy chief of operations for the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force.

The REF, based here, partners with industry, academia and military leaders to get developmental as well as off-the-shelf technologies to deployed troops as quickly as possible.

Walburn was a Florida National Guard soldier deployed to Iraq to evaluate soldiers’ equipment needs for the REF when he lost his leg to an improvised explosive device. He had volunteered for the 179-day deployment and was on a patrol with the 25th Infantry Division’s 1st Stryker Brigade Combat Team when the incident occurred near Mosul on May 28, 2005.

Nine people, including a U.S. soldier, died in the attack. Walburn lost his leg but credited quick action by combat lifesavers and the Mosul-based combat support hospital with saving his life.

Today, the Northern Virginia Carvers honored Walburn’s sacrifice and his continued service with the REF by presenting him a cane inscribed with his name and topped with an intricately carved bald eagle.

Jack Nitz, a member of the Eastern Oklahoma Woodcarver’s Association and former Navy chief petty officer, initiated the Eagle Cane Project to honor wounded heroes at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington.

The project has spread to woodcarving and woodturning clubs in 13 states. Woodturning is the process of shaping wood into forms on a lathe.

Henri “Hank” Cloutier, an Air Force retiree who coordinates the Eagle Cane Project here, noted that cane-presentation ceremonies date back to the Civil War as a sign of respect and honor for wounded troops.

The eagle carved into the cane is symbolic, as well, Cloutier explained. Native Americans believed that warriors wounded on the battlefield returned as eagles.

“This cane is not to be seen as any sign of weakness,” Cloutier told Walburn. “It is a sign of respect and honor and thanks for your personal sacrifice.”

Walburn said during today’s ceremony that he was proud to accept his cane, not for himself, but for all wounded warriors.

He offered a word of encouragement for those undergoing the long, difficult rehabilitation process. “Life is going to hold a lot of promise still,” he said. “And you will be back on your feet, doing great things for our country. There is a path ahead, and it is going to be good.”

Army Sgt. John Keith, another Operation Iraqi Freedom amputee serving with the Rapid Equipping Force who attended today’s ceremony, called it an emotional crescendo to the long healing process he and Walburn underwent together.

Keith lost his leg to an IED in southern Baghdad on Nov. 9, 2004, selected his own eagle cane today. The woodcutters will inscribe it with his name and date and place of injury, then present it at a future ceremony.

“He is a true symbol of a warrior,” Keith said of Walburn. “We all had bad days (during rehabilitation), but he always had a smile on his face and was never down. He was an inspiration to us all.”

Walburn said efforts like the Eagle Cane Project go a long way in demonstrating the American people’s support for men and women in uniform. “It’s a great morale boost that helps them go forward with their lives,” he said.

The Eagle Cane Project is an example of the myriad projects individual Americans, schools, church groups, companies and other organizations are taking on to show support for the troops. The Defense Department’s America Supports You program showcases these activities while helping people involved in them network with each other and attract other volunteers seeking ways to show their support.

Despite any public debate about the conflict itself, Walburn said, the country remains unified behind its troops. He cautioned against “compassion fatigue” from giving so much for so long. “We all have to continue,” he said.

Cloutier said his and other woodworking groups participating in the Eagle Cane Project hope to expand their effort to honor all combat-wounded troops who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The problem, he said, is that privacy laws make it difficult to contact those troops. He encouraged wounded troops or their families to contact him at hankusaf@verizon.net or call 703-430-1222 to arrange to receive a cane.

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Related Sites:
America Supports You
Army Rapid Equipping Force

Click photo for screen-resolution imageIntricately carved bald eagles top each eagle cane presented to troops who have suffered severe lower-extremity wounds in Iraq or Afghanistan. The troops receive the canes through the Eagle Cane Project. Photo by Donna Miles  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. John Keith, a Rapid Fielding Initiative soldier who lost his leg in Iraq, selected a cane to be inscribed with his name and date and place of his injury as part of the Eagle Cane Project. Photo by Donna Miles  
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