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Health and Fitness

Healing through Woodwork

Veteran Overcomes PTSD by Making Toys for Military Kids

Sawdust lingers in the air, illuminated by small work lights. Silence fills the dark garage as the loud whirring of a belt sander comes to a stop. Bruce Empol stops working momentarily and runs his rough, weathered hands up and down the now-smooth wooden block.

Although his eyes appear fixated on the object in his hands, his gaze is thousands of miles and 50 years away.

It was September of 1967. Empol stood on the fantail of the Gearing-class destroyer USS Fechteler (DD 870), staring across the murky brown waters of the Mekong Delta to the ravaged tree line beyond. They had spent nearly a month straight lobbing 5-inch shells and small arms fire into the thick green jungle, providing fire support for Marines and Soldiers fighting on the ground. At just 18 years old, Empol was no stranger to the sight of death and destruction.

"It was a challenge, knowing that you could be killed," said Empol. "I got grown up fast."

When Empol left the Navy after his contract ended and returned home from Vietnam, he had no idea that the war would follow him. Instead of parades and celebrations, he was met with insults and disrespect. It was a rocky start to civilian life.

"We were spat on," said Empol. "It's not like they treat the vets today."

That's when the nightmares began.

"We didn't know what PTSD was at the time. I had nightmares every week." - Empol

Newly married and now working as a union electrician, Empol's mental state continued to deteriorate. He was angry at the way he had been treated, scarred by the bloodshed he had seen overseas. He began to lash out at those around him. He refused to socialize, avoided going out, and often got into physical altercations when he did.

"I just had the attitude that I would rip someone's head off if they got in my way," said Empol. "I found myself shying away from crowds, not going to movies, sitting with my back to the wall when I went out to eat so I wouldn't have people around me."

His violent outbursts and constant nightmares ended up forcing him to leave his wife. Once he remarried, his behavior continued, cumulating in a public physical altercation in a restaurant in front of his second wife.

That's when Empol knew he needed help, and he signed himself up for therapy through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"I found a doctor that could help me," said Empol.

When he was officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, Empol knew he needed an outlet to help take his mind off of his memories from the war. That's when he rediscovered an old passion from before his time in the military: woodworking.

"I'm in my own world," said Empol, motioning to his garage-based workshop full of tools, sawdust and wood. "With all the ruckus around me, I can come out here and just be myself - no stress."

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It started small, with Empol making simple wooden toys for his grandchildren. With constant practice and patience, his skills grew, and he now produces professional-level wooden toys, complete with moving parts.

"It's my passion now," said Empol. "Sometimes I'm out here for 12 hours a day."

Empol realized working with the wood and creating toys helped him overcome his own problems, but he also wanted to help other veterans as well. He decided to give his toys away for free to military families around the world.

"I'll go down to the VA hospital and see a service member and just say, 'Here, have one - it's yours,'" said Empol. "It's a feeling of accomplishment knowing it's going to a good family."

Now a staunch advocate for veterans dealing with PTSD, Empol offered some words of advice to other service members who think they may be experiencing those problems.

"You can't do it yourself," said Empol. "The more you talk, the better it is. Do not hold it in. Because the only one you're going to destroy is yourself."

Resources for PTSD: