CLEARWATER, Kan. — Each piece is carved in careful detail. The helmet. The rifle. The boots.
It took two years for Philip Crabtree to hew his fallen soldier sculpture out of the red cedar trees he cut down in a roadside ditch. It stands about 4 feet tall and is enclosed in a glass case.
Crabtree, who mows lawns for a living, takes the sculpture to funerals of military veterans. Next to it, he places a wood donation box. His goal is to raise money to help retired veterans buy some groceries or make a utility payment or a house payment.
“I wanted to give back to the troops, especially those of the Vietnam era who were spit on when they came home,” he said.
Crabtree, 34, said he used to lead the honor guard team with the Kansas Army National Guard. He and his team served at more than 450 funerals over three years.
Crabtree said he served at the funerals of veterans from wars including the Civil War and the Spanish American War, whenever remains were identified with DNA technology.
The team has a curious role at funerals, he said. It is around the families and friends of the veterans, but doesn’t interact with them. Its job is to remain anonymous.
“We’re kind of like ghosts. We’re there before a family gets there, and by the time they turn around, we’re gone,” Crabtree said.
He emerged from that duty with a desire to help veterans.
One day he decided to carve a memorial for soldiers. His mom had started him in carving when he was a kid, and he enjoyed it for about a year until he accidentally jammed a knife blade into his hand.
He didn’t take up carving again until later in life, when he decided to try making log furniture.
After he cut down the cedar trees, he let them dry for eight months. Then he went to work on them at his home outside Clearwater, mostly with a chain saw, finally with carving knives.
He used his own military boots as a model for the boots. He tried to carve the rifle from memory, but finally used an AR-15 as a model. The helmet is a standard battle helmet.
He finished in March. Hoppers Glass of Wichita donated glass for the display case.
So far, Crabtree has displayed the work at four funeral services. It will be on display this weekend through Monday at Lakeview Funeral Home, 12100 E. 13th St.
Crabtree has created a Facebook page called “Once Upon a Soldier Memorial.” Veterans may go there to sign up for help. Families of deceased veterans may go there to ask him to bring the sculpture to their funerals.
Crabtree said he still serves in the Army guard as a sergeant. He no longer leads the honor guard, but joins it as needed. Meanwhile, he mows lawns for his ASAP Lawn Care Service, which he started 14 years ago.
He used to have seven employees, but now it’s just him. He’s still rebuilding the business after thieves wiped it out two years ago by stealing all his equipment, which was worth $25,000. It was never recovered.
Crabtree was at Guard training in Salina when the theft occurred. He had to start over with push mowers.
“You keep getting back up, and you just move along with whatever God puts in front of you,” he said.
Busy as he is, Crabtree vows to get the sculpture to as many veteran funerals as he can. He also hopes to display it at other events in the region.
“There’s so many people who are afraid to speak up and admit that, ‘Yeah, an extra 100 bucks or 500 bucks sure would help out,’ ” Crabtree said. “That’s the type of person I’m looking for. I don’t have millions to hand out.“