Jamie Willis joined the U.S. Army in 1989 as a Cavalry Scout. During his military career, Willis was a member of 4th Squadron, 7th Cavalry in Korea, and 2nd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment. In 1991, he served in Saudi Arabia with A Troop in the 1st Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment as part of Operation Desert Shield, and later in Operation Desert Storm. Willis remembers, “It was a rough time, not really knowing when we first deployed how long we would be there [or] what the situation would actually be like. After seeing what happened on the news before we deployed–the threat of chemical warfare–and just freshly being in the Army, it was a real terrifying time.” During this tour, Willis was severely injured in an accident with a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. His back sustained the most damage, and Willis was told he may never walk again. Miraculously, he began to take his first steps a few weeks after. The pain from the injury, however, did eventually force him into an early medical retirement in 1998.
Due to his specialized role in the military and his limited physical range, it was difficult to reintegrate into civilian life. During the first several years, Willis took jobs that were less physically demanding, including: gas station clerk, school bus driver, mechanic, and a garbage man. In 2006, he reentered the military world and worked on the MRAP (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicle project. He started MRAP University as an instructor in Texas, and later traveled the U.S. and overseas training service members until 2014.
Eventually, the mental and physical injuries Willis received during combat caught up to him, manifesting themselves in an extremely painful way. Willis suffered with chronic back pain from his accident and was considered 100% disabled by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The combination of being unable to work and PTSD left Willis often contemplating suicide. His life completely changed when he decided to find an alternative to the unstable, “ugly” metal canes issued by the VA. After researching a better, more attractive cane, Willis reached out to Free Canes for Veterans, a volunteer project based in Florida. When he was told the waitlist to receive a hand-carved cane was full, he was contacted by the head of the organization, Oscar Morris, who taught Willis how to make his own.
Willis soon made his very first cane, but he did not want to stop with himself. The experience of handcrafting a mobility tool made him realize other Veterans deserved to have a cane that gave them a sense of dignity. With his newfound sense of purpose, Willis started his own branch, Canes for Veterans Central Texas, in 2016. Since then, Willis and his team of volunteers have made over 400 canes distributed to Veterans and civilians in the U.S. and around the world. The canes are made from scraps of wood, either donated or found by Willis. In January, news of his cane-making went nationwide as he had asked for local Christmas trees to be donated to him instead of discarded. Before he knew it, Willis had thousands of trees donated from across the country.
Willis says the symbolism of using Christmas trees to make canes was told to him by Morris. He explained, “The Christmas tree and the Veteran are very similar. If you think about the Christmas tree and the service member, they're treated the same. They're taken when they're young, they're decorated up, they're used, and at the end of the season, they're both thrown away. I'm taking that Christmas tree and I'm stripping it back down and starting over. Then I turn it into a cane. It's solid again–it's strong–and I give it to the Veteran as a symbol; to show them you're still solid, you're still strong, you're still worth something. When you explain that to them, they stand a little taller. They puff their chest out a little bit and it just makes them feel good about themselves.”
Willis resides in Copperas Cove, TX, where he is keeping himself busy with the organization. He hopes to make and give away 1,000 canes in 2020.
NFM Salute is an initiative in which one military member or Veteran is chosen each month to be honored as the “Salute of the Month.” Salutes are chosen from nominations on the NFM Salute website, www.nfmsalute.com. The “Salute of the Month” will be featured on the website with a biography and information about his or her service, and NFM Lending will donate to a military or Veteran non-profit in the Salute’s name.
NFM Lending is proud to donate $5,000 to Canes for Veterans Central Texas on behalf of Willis. NFM looks forward to the opportunity to continue to honor military and Veterans through the NFM Salute initiative.
About NFM Lending
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