Wounded U.S. veterans find distraction in New Brunswick man's woodworking class

Wounded U.S. veterans find distraction in New Brunswick man's woodworking class

You may not have heard of Rob Cosman, but the Grand Bay man is well known internationally for the high-end, specially crafted hand tools he makes and sells.

For 18 years, Cosman has also travelled North America putting on workshops for business executives and hobbyists on  how to use the tools to create such things as dovetail and mortise and tenon joints, used in furniture-making to connect wood without nails.

But when a wounded U.S. veteran reached out to him a few years ago for assistance with the purchase of a tool, Cosman's life took an unexpected turn. 

- The toughest battle of his life: Retired soldier coping with PTSD 

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It led him to stage his first free-of-charge workshop for a small group of wounded veterans at a rented space in Niagara Falls, Ont.

"It turned out to be the most rewarding week of my career," Cosman said. "Somebody labelled this 'distracton therapy.' And the point is, when you're doing something like cutting a dovetail, it occupies all of your mind, your eye, and your hand. You can't think about other things.

"So if you've got these negative thoughts they're constantly battling, they're kept at bay when they're focused on doing something like this."

Joy of the dovetail joint

The program is now known as the Rob Cosman Purple Heart Project.

Participants, he said, are often thrilled with the experience.

"When they learn to make their first dovetail, that's when the light comes on."

So far, he's coached 42 U.S. vets and two Canadian vets.

He's joined in the work by his son Jake and a retired U.S. army colonel, Luther Shealy, who volunteers as manager for the events.

Supported by donations

All travel and other costs for the veterans are picked up by U.S. philanthropists and corporations or local businesses in Niagara Falls.

And each veteran returns home with $2,700 worth of free hand tools.

Starting next year, he is moving the workshops to a new space in the former bowling alley in his home town of Grand Bay-Westfield.

This week, he and Jake are hard at work converting the space into a workshop, tool showroom and studio space for filming his subscription series of online classes and YouTube videos.

Some reluctant to leave home

The move to the family-owned building will reduce costs.

Cosman expects he'll travel to the airport in Bangor to pick up many of the U.S. participants.

It has always been difficult to find vets to take the workshops, he said. Many with post-traumatic stress disorder have difficulty even venturing out in public.

He'd also like to increase the percentage of Canadians taking part.