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Posted 12/16/2014

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By Erica Skolte

He’s a tough guy with a tender heart.

Matthew Kirschner served as a sergeant in the Unites States Marine Corps before working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Jacksonville District. He did three tours in Iraq, 2003, 2004 and 2005, and was decorated for valor in combat.

A retired Marine is not the kind of guy you would expect to pick up a crochet hook to create hundreds of “beanies,” many of them pink. But Kirschner, together with his wife Brianne, created the “Beanies for Vets” program He has cranked out hundreds of beanies, all to benefit veterans and several charities. He is currently working on a crocheted American flag.

Brianne Kirschner, who earned a degree as a relaxation therapist, has been crocheting for years. One day while he was watching football, Brianne suggested Matthew pick up crocheting. He knew working with his hands was a good way to battle Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and had done some woodworking as therapy. Brianne taught Matthew to crochet to help him relax. He picked it up quickly, starting with simple potholders, but rapidly moved on to afghans and hats, because he wanted to do something that would help others. The “Beanies for Vets” program was born out of Kirschner’s desire to help himself, but ended up helping hundreds of others.

“This effort is starting to go national, and people love it,” Kirschner said.

“We crochet hats for vets in nursing homes, and send hats, lap blankets, and afghans to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Veterans Village at Fort McCoy, Florida,” Kirschner said. “We also crochet small child-sized hats with purple hearts for Brianna’s new “Hearts of Valor” program, to benefit the children at the VFW National Home for Children in Eaton Rapids, Michigan.” The Kirschners sent 70 of Matthew’s hats to the agency in November.

“Matthew has found something that is very relaxing and calming, and something he knows is going to help others,” Brianne Kirschner said.

In 2005, Kirschner joined the VFW Post 8189, in Homosassa, Florida. “I felt like I didn’t have a place to go, and the VFW was a place I felt like I could go and talk to other veterans,” said Kirschner. “I wasn’t looking for support, but I found it.”

“For some of us, things like PTSD are going to be a battle all our lives, but there’s backup. That’s what drove me to the VFW. That’s what helped me - talking to those members who are 81 and 89 years old,” Kirschner said. “I think I’m having a bad day and it puts it all into perspective. Though jungle warfare and desert style warfare in urban environments are very different, the Vietnam vets who have been living with it for years can help the younger generation. The two generations don’t judge each other, they help each other. All they need to do is talk.”

When Kirschner visits family and friends in the hospital or in nursing homes, he often seeks out and talks to other vets. Not surprisingly, Kirschner says that the most common complaint is, “My head is cold!”

During one such visit, Kirschner overheard the nurses talking about a 99-year-old patient who served as an Army nurse in Europe during World War II. He went home to grab one of his crocheted hats, and returned to the hospital to speak with the elderly veteran. He walked over and introduced himself, and presented her with the hat, explaining who he was and what he did. “Thank you for your service,” he said, and she started to cry. After they had been talking for a while, the elderly vet decided she wanted to get her hair fixed up so it would look nice under her warm new hat, and said, “I’m kind of hungry.” The nurse looked up at Kirschner and asked if he could stay a while longer. Following the visit, Kirschner was touched to learn from the nurse it was the first time the woman had eaten in three days.

Today, Kirschner is the lock and dam leader[eas1]  at the Port Mayaca Lock and Dam on the east side of Lake Okeechobee. He serves in positions of leadership and responsibility as the post commander of the VFW Post 4815 in Clewiston, the District 13 sergeant, and as a national Aide-de-camp. His wife Brianne is also very active in the organization despite her busy life. She serves as the junior vice president of the Ladies Auxiliary and the district guard for District 13. Not your typical “power couple,” the Kirschners are more of a “power giving couple,” who volunteer and help others on a regular basis.

Kirschner advises veterans and others dealing with PTSD or other stresses to reach out and use the resources available to them. “Go get help - the hardest step is taking the first step. The Veterans Administration (VA) has hotlines for those who are feeling depressed or suicidal, or go to the VA. They are top-notch. Nine times out of 10, they are people who have ‘been there and done that,’ so they know what they’re talking about, and they can help.”

The Kirschners brought their beanies to the VFW booth at the Winter Wonderland Festival in Clewiston to raise money for a number of VFW programs, including the National Home for Children, cancer aid and research, and the building fund to help maintain Post 4185 for the benefit of the local veterans.

Kirschner is not the only Corps employee who is active in the VFW. Several Corps employees in south Florida are also officers of VFW Post 4815. Israel “Izzy” Vargas, is the senior vice commander, and a lock and dam mechanic for the west side of the Okeechobee Waterway, working at Moore Haven, Ortona, and W.P. Franklin Lock and Dams. Clewiston biologist David Lattuca is junior vice commander. James “J.C.” Hayes, who provides quality assurance for contracting, and William Slaughter, lead facility management specialist and field maintenance lead in Clewiston are also members. Carl Williams, chief of navigation and flood risk management, is a member of VFW Post 4194 in Stuart.

Jacksonville District Port Mayaca Port Mayaca Lock and Dam U.S. Army Corps of Engineers USACE veteran VFW