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Warrior Finds Purpose and Joy in Giving Back to Others

Air Force veteran Tom Marcum candidly admits that without help and support from Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP), his life would be drastically different.

While deployed in Iraq, Tom survived three explosions within a few months of each other, and a fourth explosion about two years later. He manages PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI), in addition to losing most of his hearing and developing balance problems and vertigo. His conditions and prescribed medications affected his mood and were eroding the relationships he treasured most.

“Without help, I would be divorced and living under a bridge; Wounded Warrior Project saved my life,” Tom said. “I think my wife April and I were headed for divorce until the right help saved my marriage and saved my life.”

His wife found WWP first and urged Tom to register. He enrolled in WWP’s Independence Program when it was first established in 2011. The Independence Program was designed for veterans like Tom, who manage TBI, spinal cord injury, or neurological issues. The program works with each warrior, his or her family and caregivers, and, in many cases, a coach to set individual goals and develop a plan to help the veteran live as independently as possible. 

Taking Small Steps
When Tom started working with a coach, he needed a cane to move around, relied heavily on his wife for mobility and transportation, and had limited social interactions.

Tom’s WWP coach motivated him to get out and walk more, use the cane less, and do physical therapy. Tom eventually joined a gym with help from WWP and continued to exercise with light weights and do physical therapy three times per week.

“I would go out with my coach and just walk around,” Tom said. “Not only was I moving more, but I was walking better and was able to put the cane away when I was at home. Joining a gym pushed me to the next level. I became more confident and built the knowledge to keep the progression going, all thanks to the [WWP] Independence Program.”

In addition to providing a coach to help with physical therapy and motivation, WWP covered the costs of respite care — household help, in this case — to give April a needed break. In 2015, WWP connected Tom with an Atlanta-based spinal cord and brain rehabilitation program to give him new tools for managing TBI and help taper off the prescription medications.

Tom has been able to stay active and manage life with fewer medications and complications. WWP’s assistance made a world of difference to Tom and April.

“Tom having a coach takes a tremendous amount of stress off my shoulders,” April said. “Tom genuinely likes him as a person and as a coach, and the two of them get along really well. For me, just knowing my husband is with someone reliable, trustworthy, and who helps him engage in the community and do the things that he wants to be involved in is a big relief.”

Woodworking as Therapy and Purpose
While attending the rehabilitation program in Atlanta, Tom was given the chance to try the art of turning wood into pens on a motorized, spinning lathe. He discovered a new talent.

He soon found that learning crafts like turning pens and woodworking gave him an outlet for expression as well as a form of hands-on therapy. He had to exercise his brain to remember the process and build on his new craft.  

“I have a hard time memorizing things,” Tom explained. “I use woodworking to try to remember where I stopped with this project and where I need to pick up. It all works to help me get better.”

Before long, he was turning pens out of reclaimed artifacts: spark plugs, bullets, scrap wood. Then making pens gave way to making toys. “The kids started to come by,” Tom said. “Then COVID-19 happened, and I started making yard games for neighborhood families.”  

Tom made a yard-sized Yahtzee game, then made giant dice, which one family used as a home-based math lesson. Next, he started building furniture. He connected with a single mom and a college student who needed help. Tom was able to use three basic tools and reclaimed and low-cost materials to fill the needs.

Word of mouth and social media helped him connect with people in his neighborhood who admire his purpose and can use a little help during a difficult year like 2020.

“Why can’t I start building for people who can’t afford furniture?” Tom asked. “I take my time, I work for a couple of hours until I get tired, but I keep at it.

“My biggest reward is seeing a smile on a child’s face.”

Turning Scrap Wood into Gifts that Give Back
Tom has also found himself mentoring a fellow veteran who needed encouragement with his own woodworking. “I tell him, ‘Don’t buy wood — it’s all around us — and don’t get discouraged if your first pen is the ugliest pen you’ve seen. Keep working, and you’ll get better at your craft.’”

With a lathe, a makeshift table saw, and a sander, Tom turns scrap wood into hope and fellowship. He’s giving back to his family, friends, and neighbors in simple yet powerful ways.

“I don’t need expensive tools to do my rehabilitation. I’m going to figure it out by using what I have.”

This holiday season will find Tom busy and full of purpose. That’s a welcome sight for his loved ones.

“When quarantine started, it was rough for both of us,” April said. “Like millions of other people, we had to come up with new ways to be active and engaged with others. I really want to thank Wounded Warrior Project for everything they do for us and on our behalf.”

About Wounded Warrior Project
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers — helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more.

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