Through trial and error, Staff Sgt. Bruce Kandle found a rhythm to spin a ball of molten glass so that he could get the shape needed to mold a drinking cup.
It didn’t come easily. His first efforts had the red hot glob shifting into oblong shapes that would never yield a glass fit for a dinner table.
But Kandle persisted, and the soldier began to see a metaphor in his work.
“It gives you a visual representation of what it means to be centered,” he said.
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That’s an ideal image for Kandle and a dozen of his peers from Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s Warrior Transition Battalion. They are participating in a special course at Tacoma’s Museum of Glass for injured, ill and wounded veterans.
The project opens the museum’s hot shop and its instructors to soldiers assigned to the transition battalion.
Soldiers in the unit are at a vulnerable time in their lives while the Army decides whether they can remain in uniform. Some don’t know if they’re headed to the civilian world or returning to other military units. All are coping with long-term medical challenges.
“Programs like this offer them an opportunity to get back to normal,” Warrior Transition Battalion Commander Lt. Col. Jeffery Mosso said.
The project, known as Hot Shop Heroes: Healing with Fire, has its origins in a military day the museum hosted last February. Senior officers from Lewis-McChord walked on the hot shop floor and saw an opportunity for therapeutic recreation as they talked with glass artist Dale Chihuly and museum executive director Susan Warner
“The therapy is really what we’re looking for,” Mosso said.
Chihuly knows firsthand that wounded and injured individuals have much to gain by exploring the world of art. The Tacoma native wears his famed eyepatch because of a 1976 car accident that left him blind in his left eye.
The glass museum found donors to sponsor two classes on a trial basis this fall and spring. It’s looking to make the program permanent, Warner said.
Soldiers spend a few hours at a time in the museum, learning from instructors and making their own projects. They work with blowpipes, rods, blades and blocks as they create glassware for their homes.
“There’s such a resonance between this medium and the soldiers,” Warner said. “They are so natural with the material, and obviously the process itself reflects the team, the discipline and the risk of military life.”
Soldiers say the Warrior Transition Battalion can be a lonely place because each person is working on his or her own recovery plan. It’s a contrast to Army life where soldiers work toward shared goals.
Getting in the hot shop can restore that sense of camaraderie, Staff Sgt. Jennifer Cox said. Many of the works they’re producing require more than one set of hands at different times.
Cox is on the battalion staff. She’ll recommend the glass course to more of her soldiers in the future.
“It’s a completely new experience,” said Cox, 30, of Steilacoom. She looks forward to the weekly classes because she finds them exciting.
Sgt. Ronnie Bernardo likely has only a few more months left in the battalion. She signed up for Hot Shop Heroes to learn something new before she leaves the Army and enrolls in culinary school.
“Calm. I experience calm in the shop,” said Bernardo, 44, a Tacoma resident who was assigned to the battalion after a back injury.
Kandle, 35, has been in the transition unit for more than a year recovering from an injury he suffered during a deployment and a subsequent heart attack. He’s not quite sure when he’ll leave the Army. Lately, he’s been participating in a writing project and enjoying more artistic activities.
One word summed up why he wanted to participate in the glass course: “Fire.”
“It was relaxing,” he said, describing how he learned to shape his drinking glass. “That kind of flame requires your concentration.”