Today is the day to honor veterans like David Mattingly, who is finding a new purpose working on crafts in a recreational therapy program.EXPAND
Today is the day to honor veterans like David Mattingly, who is finding a new purpose working on crafts in a recreational therapy program.
Molly Longman

Vietnam Vet Finds New Life in an Unexpected Place: Crafts

David Mattingly is building a birdhouse and talking about death.

The 70-year-old Marine veteran’s hands shake as he dips a delicate purple paintbrush into a small plastic vat of wood glue at the Foundation for Senior Living.

Lily Godinez, an Arizona State University recreational therapy student, holds a small block of wood still for him. He paints a thin white line with the wobbliness of someone trying to paint while running on a treadmill.

“Come on hands,” he directs his own limbs as he pulls them into his lap. But because of his Parkinson’s disease, they aren’t as obedient as they once were.

Godinez helps him place part of the roof on his birdhouse.

Kelly Ramella, a recreational therapy instructor at ASU’s School of Community Resources and Development, has been bringing students like Godinez to work with veterans like Mattingly on wood crafts for two semesters now.

She says working on projects like clocks and model ships help clients develop a wide range of skills, from problem-solving to simple physical motor skills.

Now, you might say that that's putting a lot of faith in tiny pieces of wood. If a craft can do that, why isn't putting together IKEA furniture more cathartic?

But Ramella says Mattingly is one of many veterans who have found independence and improved their quality of life through recreational therapeutics, including woodworking.

“One of the great benefits is it’s done in groups,” Ramella says. “They end up in conversation about possibly a memory triggered from the craft you’re doing. Recreational therapists get veterans talking.”

And on a Thursday about a month ago, Mattingly was talking about death.

He says he’s seen a lot of it in his day.

He saw the body count rack up before his eyes when he spent 14 months in Vietnam. Some of the losses were his people, some his victims.

“I was doing my job,” Mattingly remembers. “If I see a bad guy, to hell with him.”

But lately, he’s been facing a different kind of loss. A more natural kind, but more unexpected at the same time. His father died a few months ago; his mother almost three years to the day before his dad.

And sometimes the friends he’s made at this veterans' recreational therapy program will just disappear. He’s been coming here to make crafts almost every week for over three and half years now, he says. He’s built ships and clocks and bird feeders — so many that his wife won’t let him bring them into the house anymore.

Sometimes ASU students like Godinez help him, and sometimes he works with other veterans. Some will show up one day to craft a model airplane, and be gone the next.

“I really liked Allen,” Mattingly recalls. “And then one day I said, ‘Where’s Allen?’ And they said he died a week ago … Life is very shallow. You’re gone in a heartbeat, and you make a mistake and you can die real quick. You can fall in the tub and hit your head on the toilet and kill yourself.”

But Mattingly says that’s why it’s become so important to him to make the most of every second — even if those seconds are just spent methodically gluing pieces of wood together.

To his own surprise, he says working on crafts with his veterans' group has become one of the things that gets him out of bed.

A few years ago he had heart surgery and says he almost died on the table. Then he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

Things were looking bleak. He was hitting that point in life where people start offering you hard candies and talk to you like you’re a 3-year-old. The point when the general public ignores you when it's not Veterans Day or bingo night.  But he had a choice. He could stay home, watch The Price is Right, and feel sorry for himself. Or he could go out into the world. He could get out there and craft.

“They said, 'You set your mind to it, David, you can do it,'" Mattingly says. "And I did it. It surprised the hell out of me.”

He's become something of a woodworker. He takes home his finished products to varnish them. He once spent hours creating a model ship, the favorite thing he’s put together.

“I’m damn proud of that ship,” Mattingly says. “People here have done an amazing job of bringing me back to the realization that I can do things. Otherwise, I might be just watching TV and enjoying Oprah — but I enjoy life.”

Godinez asks Mattingly how she should place the last piece of wood on his birdhouse.

She positions it off to the side, a little out of alignment.

“No, over,” he says firmly.

Godinez overcorrects.

“No, over to the left a little, dear,” he says more softly. “If you can’t do it, I can hold it.”

“If you want to do it, you can, because you’ve got this,” Godinez says.

Mattingly chuckles and attaches the final piece.

“To me, life is something that you’ve got to experience each and every day,” Mattingly says. “You have to say, by God, I’m going to get through the day and look forward to every day that I live. And that’s what I try to do here. I sound like a damn politician, but I do.”

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