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The gift of a handwritten letter shows appreciation for Canadian forces.

Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in the February 2007 issue of Popular Woodworking.

About two years ago I was selling some of my woodworking and pens at a craft show. After the show, I had several pens left and remembered reading about a project started by Keith Outten, wood forum host for Sawmill Creek ( called Freedom Pens (, which sends handcrafted pens to American servicemen and women who serve in dangerous areas of the world.

I was inspired by the project and I spoke with Outten about how he was able to organize his project and establish public support. I sent Freedom Pens a few of my remaining pens and included a handwritten letter with each one. It’s then when the gears started to turn for me; I began to wonder how I could start something similar for the Canadian Armed Forces. I wanted a project that said thank you to the men and women of the Canadian Forces, one person at a time. I know that we seldom celebrate what our Canadian soldiers do, and that Canadians are a patriotic people, but we don’t usually show it in an outward fashion. I want to change that.

7 Sept. 2005 PRT Site Kandahar, Afghanistan: Sergeant Bill Burfitt, a Senior Medical Technician with the Canadian Provincial Reconstruction Team, examines a young boy who is very sick as part of his evaluation to determine the extent of his illness. Sgt Burfitt were taking part in a free medical clinic for the local population that was put on just outside the PRT Compound in conjunction with their American Medical counterparts. The Provincial Reconstruction Team’s Headquarters (PRT HQ) is composed of staff that assists Commander PRT in the daily planning, coordination and control of operations. PRT HQ staff includes subject matter experts in equipment and personnel support; medical services; training; financial accounting, public affairs and ecumenical matters to name a few.

The PRT has begun operations in Kandahar, Afghanistan. The PRT brings together representatives from the CF, Foreign Affairs Canada (FAC), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in an integrated Canadian effort. Under Operation ARCHER ROTO 0, the PRT will reinforce the authority of the Afghan government in and around Kandahar and help stabilize and rebuild the region. The PRT includes about 250 soldiers, drawn largely from Land Forces Western Area (LFWA).

I soon found just the right person to help with the project: Shirley Penny of the Canadian Armed Forces.

A Gift of a Letter

I made 12 pens and sent them to Shirley, who sent them to the peacekeeping forces located in Afghanistan, in December 2004. Within a few weeks I was receiving letters and e-mails from the recipients. It was a very moving moment when the first one came in, and it affirmed the idea that I needed to develop and engage other people in the project. It also became clear to me from the responses in the letters that the significance of the pen was deeply appreciated but that the accompanying letter was the real gift. In my letters, I tell members of the Canadian Armed Forces how much I appreciate their efforts in keeping the peace and fostering relations in difficult parts of the world, and that I realize the sacrifices they are making by being away from friends and family.

The letters were being passed around among the soldiers; some of those I received were coming from soldiers who did not receive a pen but who wanted to pass along their thoughts after reading the letters. My next thought was how to grow this project and so I gave it a name: Pens for Canadian Peacekeepers (to reflect  the best-known global role of our forces).

As many of you know, the woodworking community on the Internet is a very diverse and supportive group. If you have frequented any of the woodworking forums then you also know there is a plethora of information and expertise out there in many areas of interest. I sought  some support for logistical help with web site creation from one such person, Mark Goodall in Peachtree, Ga. Together, we created, so others could more easily read about and get involved in the project.

One feature on the site is the publication of some of the letters that come back. The words are very moving and often express deep appreciation and support of the project’s effects on the troops. Letters from privates to brigadier generals have been received and posted.

“Nothing touches the heart like a personal gift such as yours,” wrote a peacekeeper in Sierra Leone. “The pen will remain in my pocket each and every day as a reminder that not only am I proud to be a peacekeeper, but that there are Canadians out there who are proud of what we do as well.”

One sergeant wrote about the reactions of his soldiers when they received the gift: “The softening of their faces and for some, the tears that welled in their eyes when they read your letter, gave me a real sense of pride for the job these young soldiers were doing over here,” he wrote. “To know someone out there, besides our families, are so proud of the Canadian soldiers and appreciate what we do, makes us walk taller and prouder ourselves.”

To date, more than 30 people from across Canada and the United States have donated handmade pens; more than 350 have been sent. There is no timeline or target number of pens to send. The project has no end, so as time passes along so does the path and events that guide the project.

This project has also developed many positive stories. One involves some special walnut I was given last fall. This wood was originally destined to become rifle stocks in a factory in Toronto during World War II. At the end of the war, some of the leftover wood was salvaged by a factory worker who was also a woodworker. Through a series of events and time, some of the remaining wood was donated to me to support the project. I have since turned many pens from this walnut and I have included its story in each accompanying pen letter so the soldiers receiving them know that they have become pens rather than gun stock from days gone by. (The pictured pen is from this storied stock.)

Shirley Penny continues to be the eyes and ears for the project within the forces. With each batch of pens and letters, Shirley and I discuss where we might direct each shipment. Pens have been sent to many places where the Canadian Armed Forces are on duty, including Afghanistan, the Sudan, Sierra Leone, Haiti and Egypt.

This project was inspired to say thank you to the many Canadian Armed Forces men and women around the world who wear the Maple Leaf not only on their shoulders, but also in their hearts. What I was not prepared for was the incredible level of gratitude and positive feelings that this project has given back to so many people; it truly is wide reaching. It is proof positive that to give is to receive!

To find out more and learn how you can help, visit PensForCanadianPeacekeepers.comJim Shaver

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