Veteran leans on walking sticks for therapy

Hugh Lessig
Contact Reporterhlessig@dailypress.com
Carving walking sticks helps veteran

HAMPTON — Sen. Mark R. Warner is an urban-dwelling Northern Virginian of the first order, down to the crisp suit and sharp haircut. But during a recent visit to the Hampton VA Medical Center, one accessory seemed out of place.

The senator emerged from a building with a hand-carved, ornate walking stick more suited to the Appalachian Trail than the concrete jungle he calls home.

By way of explanation, Warner pointed across the hospital campus to a bearded man in a broad hat who carves the sticks as part of his therapy. Warner said he would give the stick to a deserving veteran. Then he took a second stick, shaking it in front of TV cameras, vowing to use it on stubborn senators "who are more interested in arguing than getting things done."

Chalk up another convert for David Rose.

The 46-year-old Navy veteran prefers the term "traveling sticks," to aid people on their journey through life. Rose's own journey has seen a few bumps along the way, but he's currently a popular guy at the Hampton VA, where he regularly stops and gives away a few sticks for free.

Rose left the Navy in 1994 after two years, incurring a couple of serious shipboard injuries along the way. Suffering from back pain and leg problems, he left the military and sunk into depression. At one point while living in Northern Virginia, he contemplated suicide.

"I was ready to be one of those statistics," he said. "It was either drive off a cliff or go home."

Home is Hampton Roads, and that's where he went.

A graduate of York High School whose parents still live in Hampton, Rose sought care at the Hampton VA in 2001. He credits the now-retired Dr. Richard Deaton, his first primary care physician, with helping turn his life around.

To get back on his feet, Rose stayed on the hospital campus in a building leased by the Salvation Army. For several months, he lived with other veterans and tried to help them, doing resumes to aid their job searches.

He also received a VA-issued cane. He understood the need for it, but a cane carried the stigma of being disabled.

What if he had a walking stick? That would be cool.

Rose said he always had artistic tendencies. During his brief Navy service, he painted a mural on his ship, the USS Sylvania. He also painted while in high school. Staying in the Salvation Army building, he fashioned his first walking stick from a piece of wood he found. The meticulous work relaxed him and was therapeutic.

The designs became more sophisticated as he began using different tools. Using a small hammer, he could make semi-circular indentations that resembled snake scales, appropriate for a cane with a snake's head. Applying heat created darker stains. When finished, he coated the stick in a clear plastic for durability.

He eventually learned to do without Percocet, a powerful narcotic pain reliever.

The story doesn't end there.

The Salvation Army no longer leases the building where Rose stayed. He has since moved in with his parents, who along with Dr. Deaton share credit for turning around his fortunes. He's continued to work on the sticks at his parents' house. About four months ago, he began visiting the Hampton VA with his collection in tow.

He immediately attracted attention. Rose responded by giving away his sticks to selected veterans.

L'vont Madison was one of the lucky ones.

"This walking stick, it's more of a conversation piece when people see you," Madison said. "This is one of the best therapies I could do. It puts you on another level. Nobody's looking at you like you're a crippled-up vet from the VA.".

During one 45-minute stretch as Rose sat on a bench, four veterans stopped to ask him about the sticks, including Melvin Dickens.

"I think it's an absolutely beautiful idea," said Dickens, holding one of the larger sticks in his hand. "Moses walked with a stick. There's power in that."

Rose wants to transform his craft into a business. He's already received attention on Instagram, and thinks he could sell the sticks for several hundred dollars each, perhaps more. He gets a great deal of satisfaction from seeing the reaction on the faces of veterans.

"They're walking with their heads up higher," he said. "They're feeling good about themselves."

Dickens is predicting great things.

"He's not doing it for the money," he said, "but the money is going to come."

Lessig can be reached by phone at 757-247-7821.

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