Forging ahead: Bladesmithing gives troops, vets and caregivers a chance to bond, heal

Military veterans Donna and Adam Porras operate Recovery Forge, a bladesmithing program that’s offered as free therapy for veterans, servicemembers, first responders and their families, through the newly revamped Military in the Arts Initiative at Workhouse in Lorton, Va.
Michael S. Darnell/Stars and Stripes

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: August 18, 2018

LORTON, Va. — At the Workhouse Arts Center 20 miles outside downtown Washington, Army Reserve Sgt. Eric Lang spent one hot Saturday afternoon next to a forge, heating a piece of steel before transferring it to an anvil, where he used a hammer to form a blade.

Nearby, Sgt. 1st Class Keith Shugarts put the finishing touches on his knife, grinding it into a smooth finish.

As they worked, Donna and Adam Porras watched, occasionally stepping in to guide them.

Donna, an Air Force veteran, and Adam, who retired from the Army, operate Recovery Forge, a bladesmithing program that’s offered as free therapy for veterans, servicemembers, first responders and their families.

The program is part of the newly revamped Military in the Arts Initiative at Workhouse, a nonprofit in a former correctional facility in Lorton, Va., that provides visual and performing arts space and classes to the public.

Workhouse previously offered studio space, discounted classes and events, such as open mic nights and film screenings, to servicemembers and veterans, but it was forced to shutter the program earlier this year after losing grant funding.

Last month, a new program was created with a $73,000 grant from the Potomac Health Foundation, which aims to improve community health in Prince William County by funding local programs. With the funding, the nonprofit has a larger mission: Help veterans on their road to recovery. Under its new Military in the Arts Initiative, Workhouse plans to offer other therapeutic art experiences to veterans, caregivers and families starting this fall. It’s already hired a part-time art therapist, Yosenia White.

“Rather than just giving them an experience, we want to stay in their lives,” said Debra Balestreri, director of education at Workhouse. “We want to follow up and make sure they’re getting the help they need. We want to be a resource.”

White just started this week to establish the new art therapy program. The art and materials will be individualized to whatever a veteran or family member is struggling with, she said. For example, clients fighting perfectionist tendencies often use watercolor or collage, which “forces them out of the habit of wanting to control every aspect of what they’re doing,” White said.

“Art acts as a mediator,” she said. “What they don’t want to verbally articulate to family and friends, they can explore that in their artwork. Whatever they’re thinking about, feeling and need to process will come out in the creation and content in their artwork.”

Recovery Forge fits into Workhouse’s new mission, Balestreri said, though White described it more as “therapeutic art” than art therapy.

“What they’re doing is teaching people how to use this kind of material and process it to create objects they can use,” White said.

Adam Porras, 44, began bladesmithing six years ago. At the time, an Army friend was doing it in his garage on Fort Belvoir and recommended Porras give it a try.

Porras served in the military for just over 20 years. During the mid-1990s, he was involved in Army humanitarian efforts in Jamaica and Cuba. Later, as part of the 101st Airborne division, he deployed to Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, he was injured in a rocket attack.

Before he went to the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Belvoir to finish his service, he was a paralegal assigned to the Office of the Chief Prosecutor during terrorism trials in Washington and Cuba.

When his friend approached him about bladesmithing, Porras -- diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury -- had attempted conventional therapies.

“For a typical person, you get frustrated throughout the week, but for me it’s a little more exacerbated,” Porras said. “This worked out real well. I come out here, and you have to concentrate on one thing. It gives me something to do, tires me out, and at the end of the day I end up with a knife of some sort.”

Donna Porras, 47, is a full-time caregiver for her husband, whom she’s been with for 22 years. When he started forging, she did, too. Over the past six years, she’s witnessed a physical, emotional and mental change in him.

“He wouldn’t be able to deal with four to five people in the same room. Now, he’s teaching, and he’s loving every minute of it,” she said.

The Porrases weren’t the first to think of bladesmithing as a form of therapy. The friend who taught them has his own group in Baltimore, and Adam and Donna Porras helped another friend form a group in Lima, Ohio, they said. There’s an entire online community of bladesmithing veterans.

“We’ve got friends all over the country now because of it,” she said.

The bladesmithing program at Workhouse runs noon-5 p.m. Saturdays and noon-4 p.m. Sundays. It is open to any servicemember, veteran, first responder or family member who shows up, whether they’re new to bladesmithing or are regulars, like Lang and Shugarts.

On a recent Saturday, the Porrases worked on their own blades while helping and joking with Lang, who transferred his metal in and out of the 2,000-degree forge, trying to form a shape he was happy with.

In addition to its other benefits, the program creates camaraderie that some veterans believe they’ve lost, Donna Porras said.

“If these men and women are having a bad day, they can come in here, rant, rave, curse, scream, holler – you name it – and we all understand,” Porras said. “We might not have been in their shoes, but we understand.”

Lang, 28 and still in the military, spends a lot of time at the forge hearing about older veterans’ experiences. He enjoys bladesmithing because it helps eliminate stress and he ends up with a unique product, he said. But the people are why he returns.

“Even though I haven’t done as much in the military as these guys have, I can sit here as a young guy and talk to them and understand where they’re coming from,” Lang said. “It’s more about the camaraderie than anything.”

Twitter: @nikkiwentling

Sgt. 1st Class Keith Shugarts works on a knife he's forging at the Workhouse Arts Center in Lorton, Va. The Center is home to Recovery Forge, a veteran-run program that teaches forging skills to servicemembers, veterans and first responders.