At first glance, Michael Cooper radiates quintessential biker Veteran.
Black Harley-Davidson T-shirt, multiple tattoos, earrings, substantial beard, buzz haircut with a longer hint of mohawk — and knitting needles. (From that description, you can probably tell that’s him on the right in the photo above.)
“I’m a 300-pound Harley rider and I’m knitting,” laughed Cooper, who served in both the Marine Corps and Army. “Everybody’s like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ But, it’s fun.”
“I’m a little bit further from your average, stereotypical knitter,” Cooper said. “My name ain’t Betty and I don’t have blue hair. Well, I do have a blue-haired beard.”
“You kind of put your passion into it.”
Cooper’s light-hearted approach is typical of the knitting group which meets weekly at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center domiciliary, a residential program that offers treatment for a wide range of issues.
The knitting elective was started about 2 ½ years ago, said Julie Jackson, a psychologist who instructs the group, along with Angelina Nanette Schmidt, a program support assistant.
“It’s a nice supplement to other treatment,” Jackson said. “We do a lot of evidence-based programming with workbooks and teaching at the whiteboards.”
Cooper said knitting helps him cope with his PTSD.
Dimitris Hurst, a 60-year-old Army Veteran, was in his second week of the class, getting instruction from Briana Johnson, a social worker who also helps out weekly.
“It just takes a lot of practice. There’s a lot of finger work,” Hurst said. “Once I get the hang of it, I think I’ll like it a lot. Last weekend, I just stayed in my room doing it over and over.”
Instructors assist new members of the group while more experienced knitters proceed at a rapid pace
Nate Koch, a 39-year-old Marine Corps Veteran, has only been knitting since he joined the group about a month ago. But, he doesn’t miss a stitch on the blanket he’s working on, simultaneously carrying on a conversation over an indie rock playlist audible in the background.
“I read a lot also but it doesn’t do as much as this because you have to focus more,” said Koch, who also participates in ceramics and leather working, as well as playing his guitar. “But, now I can watch Netflix and do it at the same time. I already recommend it to other people.”
The group averages about 10 per week and has been full almost every week since it started, but new participants are always welcome, Jackson said.
Some of the Veterans buy their own yarn and some is provided, she said.
“I just met a woman who worked at VA in 1976 and she sent me an email that she wanted to donate some yarn,” Jackson said. “It just kind of hit me that we’ve really come full circle.”
Celebrating the State Fair Ribbon
On this day Jackson was surprised by a room full of balloons and cake to recognize a recent ribbon for her knitted socks entry at the Wisconsin State Fair.
Encouragement and one-liners punctuate the free-flowing group conversation and blend with the click, click, click of the knitting needles.
Jackson’s out-loud observation, “Charles just finished his first row,” drew a round of applause.
Cooper congratulates a new member with, “You just knitted your first knot!,” drawing the excited response, “Hey, I’m a knitter!”
And that, Cooper said, is what the group is all about.
“It’s a little bit of everything. It’s relaxing, it keeps you focused, you don’t think about outside thoughts, you kind of put your passion into it,” said. Cooper. “It’s kind of hard. It’s a lot of movement and repetition but instead of failing, every row is just another small victory.”
“I had never knitted before until I signed up here,” said the 41-year-old Cooper. “I love it.”
Jim Hoehn is the Public Affairs Specialist at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center.