Efforts are underway to create Purple Hearts for the families of U.S. troops who died after a Taliban rocket hit a Chinook helicopter in 2011.
TRUFANTE, Mich. — In the peaceful Montcalm County fields surrounding Doug Pickel’s home, all you can hear is the breeze and the flapping of the wings of mourning doves. But while it was quiet outside, Doug was making some noise inside that he wanted everyone to hear.
As Doug’s fingers turned a piece of wood with the utmost precision, his saw was roaring, and he carved a design that replicated the Purple Heart, a military medal awarded to soldiers who died or were wounded in service. This is exactly what Doug wants to be remembered for.
“People always say you died twice – the first time when you died and the second time when someone said your name for the last time. Not on my watch,” he said.
Doug has been making plaques for 26 years. This is a skill he learned from his father. Since 2006, he has been making them dedicated to the families of fallen heroes. He and his late friend Sam Wellington came up with the idea after seeing reports of the war years after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
“We were watching TV and saw the flag-laden coffin coming home and he looked at me and said, ‘We have to do something for those families. They just lost a child and that’s all they can get a folded side of. American flag,'” he said.
Each plaque requires approximately $300 worth of materials and 50 hours of production time. Each of them is slightly different from the previous one. Every choice made in the process has a purpose, including the choice of what wood to use.
“When I give a family an heirloom that’s been passed down from generation to generation, I want to make sure it’s as unique as their children. That’s the way it has to be,” Doug said.
After Doug finished carving, he drove to the home of his friend Jenny Thornhill. She owns a company called Unique Boutique, which uses a machine to etch the names and images of fallen heroes onto plaques. This is what she has been doing for 18 years.
“It’s a great way to save a picture that will last a long time — a damaged picture or a picture that means a lot to someone. It’s a great way to save it in a different way,” she said.
“Actually, it’s an honor. I’m thrilled because of my grandfather. My grandfather was in the military for 36 years, and I know what he went through. I’m also in the military for my dad and stepfather. My husband is in the military Army. So I’ve been a military kid for generations, so it’s just a way for me to give back.
Doug and Jeanne’s latest project is to make Purple Hearts for the US Army, 30 soldiers and a Navy K9 who were killed in Afghanistan in August 2011 when a Taliban rocket hit a Chinook helicopter called Extortion 17 . Seven members of the Afghan National Army were also on board that day. There are no survivors. It was the greatest loss of American life during the war in Afghanistan.
Doug remembers the day he heard the news.
“I was contacted and said, ‘Hey, did you hear about that downed Chinook? There’s a guy on it from Michigan,'” he said.
Heath Robinson, a 34-year-old SEAL of Petoskey, Michigan, was among the victims.
“Let’s give Heath’s family a plaque. They won it, and I think the family can use some hope now because nobody has done anything for them. It’s overdue,” Doug said.
Doug and Jenny will make plaques not only for Robinson’s family, but for the families of all 31 American crew members on Ransom 17 that day.
To do that, they’re going to need funding, and Doug is willing to up the ante to raise all those plaques. Heather Viveiros, founder of a group called Give2Those.org, came up with the idea while the two were traveling together.
“She said ‘You’re going to grow hair, and whoever grows the most at the end, they can pick your hair and hair color.’ It’s all painted on,” Doug said, taking it off his head A Give2Those hat.
“Whoever bids the best on Give2Those, I have to wear these colors on October 8th for my two Meijers working for 7Up in Rockford and Cedar Springs. I have to wear it in public and I’ll be proud to wear it for those 31 A fallen family,” Doug said.
Just like the selections made during the plaque making process, the selections for the fundraiser were carefully selected. It only started on July 4 and will end on October 7, the 21st anniversary of the start of the war in Afghanistan.
“It all has to make sense. Everything has to make sense. There has to be a reason behind that. That’s why we do it,” Doug said.
If you’d like to donate to the cause, you can do so on Facebook.
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