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Milwaukee VA Medical Center

 

Recovering Vets a tight-knit group

A Veteran in a knitting group offers instruction to another Vet

Michael Cooper (right) offers knitting instruction to another Veteran

By Jim Hoehn
Friday, August 24, 2018

At first glance, Michael Cooper radiates quintessential biker Veteran.

Black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, multiple tattoos, earrings, substantial beard, buzz haircut with a longer hint of mohawk -- and knitting needles.

“I’m a 300-pound Harley rider and I’m knitting,” laughed Cooper, who served in both the Marine Corps and Army. “Everybody’s like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ But, it’s fun.”

“I’m a little bit further from your average, stereotypical knitter,” Cooper said. “My name ain’t Betty and I don’t have blue hair. Well, I do have a blue-haired beard.”

Cooper’s light-hearted approach is typical of the knitting group, which meets weekly at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center domiciliary, a residential program that offers treatment for a wide range of issues.

The knitting elective was started about 2 ½ years ago, said Julie Jackson, a psychologist who instructs the group, along with Angelina Nanette Schmidt , a program support assistant.

“It’s a nice supplement to other treatment,” Jackson said. “We do a lot of evidence-based programming with workbooks and teaching at the whiteboards.”

Cooper said knitting helps him cope with his PTSD.

A Veteran works on the mechanics of knitting

At first, the nuances of knitting present a challenge, but most in the group quickly grasp the concepts.

Dimitris Hurst, a 60-year-old Army Veteran, was in his second week of the class, getting instruction from Briana Johnson, a social worker who also helps out weekly.

“It just takes a lot of practice. There’s a lot of finger work,” Hurst said. “Once I get the hang of it, I think I’ll like it a lot. Last weekend, I just stayed in my room doing it over and over.”

Nate Koch, a 39-year-old Marine Corps Veteran, has only been knitting since he joined the group about a month ago. But, he doesn’t miss a stitch on the blanket he’s working on, simultaneously carrying on a conversation over an indie rock playlist audible in the background.

“I read a lot, also, but it doesn’t do as much as this because you have to focus more,” said Koch, who also participates in ceramics and leather working, as well as playing his guitar. “But, now I can watch Netflix and do it at the same time. I already recommend it to other people.”

The group averages about 10 per week and has been full almost every week since it started, but new participants always are welcome, Jackson said.

Instructors and Veterans in the knitting group

Instructors assist new members of the group, while more experienced knitters proceed at a rapid pace.

Some of the Veterans buy their own yarn, and some is provided, she said.

“I just met a woman who worked at the VA in 1976 and she sent me an email and she wanted to donate some yarn,” Jackson said. “It just kind of hit me that we’ve really come full circle.”

On this day, Jackson was surprised by a room full of balloons and cake to recognize a recent ribbon for her knitted socks entry at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Encouragement and one-liners punctuate the free-flowing group conversation and blend with the click, click, click of the knitting needles.

Jackson’s out-loud observation, “Charles just finished his first row,” drew a round of applause.

Cooper congratulates a new member with, “You just knitted your first knot!,” drawing the excited response, “Hey, I’m a knitter!”

And that, Cooper said, is what the group is all about.

“It’s a little bit of everything. It’s relaxing, it keeps you focused, you don’t think about outside thoughts, you kind of put your passion into it,” said. Cooper. “It’s kind of hard. It’s a lot of movement and repetition ... but, instead of failing, every row is just another small victory.” 

“I had never knitted before until I signed up here,” said the 41-year-old Cooper. “I love it.”


A Veteran with tattoed hands works his knitting needles
An instructor offers a group member knitting tips
An instructor demonstrates knitting techniques to a group member

Yarn Donations

For yarn or other donations to the Milwaukee VA knitting group please contact Julie Jackson at Julie.Jackson2@va.gov or 414 384-2000 x41978

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