Presentation of a cane to a wounded warrior, said Hank Cloutier, goes back to Civil War days.
"The cane was presented to a wounded warrior as a sign of honor and respect," said Cloutier. "The eagle head is symbolic, too. In Indian lore, the spirit of a warrior who falls in battle returns to earth as a soaring eagle."
At the American Legion Post 180 in Vienna, on Aug. 1, an inscribed wood cane, intricately-handcrafted by three metro area woodcarvers, was presented to 23-year-old medic, Sergeant Joshua Lawton-Belous, wounded in Iraq.
"The cane is not a sign of limitation, but rather given as an honor, respect and gratitude for service and personal sacrifice," said Cloutier as he presented the cane to Lawton-Belous, in a brief ceremony, directed by Post 180 Commander Bob Hatter.
Cloutier, of Sterling, and Peter Ward, members of Northern Virginia Woodcarvers, and Al Melanson, member of the Capital Area Woodturners, worked in unison to produce the eagle-headed cane.
Melanson turned the shaft on a lathe, Ward burned the lettering on the shaft, and Cloutier carved the eagle’s head. Each cane is inscribed with the soldier’s name, unit and date of injury.
Lawton-Belous began suffering headaches and loss of balance more than six months ago, as mortar blasts and grenades exploded around him. He ignored the symptoms as he continued his commitment as a medic in Iraq, until, on May 23, the young soldier lost consciousness, falling into a pile of concertina wire lying about.
He was flown immediately to Germany and, when stabilized, to Texas. The cumulative effects of nearby blasts probably caused his brain injury, according to doctors evaluating Lawton-Belous. While in treatment in Texas, Lawton-Belous was approached by his barracks manager regarding the personalized canes. Lawton-Belous filled out the paperwork and with volunteers across the country working in harmony, the decorative and functional cane made its way into Lawton-Belous’ hands.
Cloutier has carved approximately 50 canes for wounded warriors but this one in Vienna was only the second official presentation.
THE CANE came to Lawton-Belous via a circuitous, but serendipitous, route.
Ann Nettles of Maryland visits Walter Reed Army Medical Center twice a week; she picks up names of wounded and sends them to Jack Nitz of Oklahoma, of the East Oklahoma Woodcarvers Association, and founder of the Eagle Cane Project. Nitz, a former Navy chief petty officer, created the Eagle Cane Project to honor those heroes at Walter Reed suffering from mobility injuries.
People from 18 states presently send to Nitz the names of the wounded, and Nitz matches them up with the soldiers’ home states.
Nitz forwarded Lawton-Belous’ name to Cloutier, who discussed the cane with fellow woodcarver, Vienna resident, Vito Florimonte, of Post 180. Florimonte assured Cloutier he’d "do something about this."
"Vito Florimonte precipitated this whole presentation," said Hatter. "About a month ago, Vito brought to my attention this project of the handcarved personalized canes. We wanted to honor Joshua.
"We hope to see more of him around here."
Attendees at the cane presentation included Lawton-Belous’ mother, Bettina Lawton, his brother, Michael Belous, and 17th District Commander Bill Strawsburg.
Lawton-Belous is now undergoing out-patient treatment at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, with a routine of physical therapy and neurological testing, and medications. He lives at home in Vienna, and was made a member of Vienna Post 180 at the presentation ceremony.
"I can’t present one of these canes without a tear coming to my eyes," said Cloutier.