PLEASANT HILL -- Combat veteran Jason Deitch carries his Shaker chip box with its finely dovetailed joints and carved bent handle into his mentor's garage workshop and places it on a bench.
It is a fine example of the complexity, yet simple lines, of fine woodworking, but for Deitch, a former Sgt. 1st Class in the U.S. Army, it represents "milestones."
He explains. "I think I am sawing a straight line." He doesn't realize it's not. Again and again he puts his hand around the handle of the saw and pulls back.
"I had never-ending trouble with the saw," says Deitch, explaining he received "pretty severe TBI" -- traumatic brain injury -- from a rocket-propelled grenade. As a result, his hand-eye perspective isn't right.
He says that when woodworking he becomes totally immersed in the task before him, forgetting everything else, including the bad memories of multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Its very rare to find anything ... that makes your head quiet," says Deitch, who also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Once he has mastered the saw, he moves on to chiseling, planing and hand-cutting dovetails.
Deitch, along with combat veteran Noah Bailey, are returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans taking part in the Diablo Woodworkers community project with Veterans Affairs in Martinez.
Since its founding in 1997, about 150 Diablo Woodworkers members have provided skill and muscle for community projects, including last year's restoration of the Niles Canyon Railway's Pickering Lumber Co. caboose 04. This year, they are making boxes for Hospice, Adirondack chairs for the recreational Camp Okizu serving young cancer patients and their families, and the first Beacon Louver Box for the Mount Diablo Historic Beacon project commemorating Pearl Harbor Day.
Diablo Woodworkers member and the veteran's project leader David Lipscomb of Lafayette suggested the project saying he "wanted to do something to help returning vets."
The first hurdle for Lipscomb and fellow club member Tim Killen of Orinda, woodworking instructor at Mt. Diablo Adult Education, in 2011 was to get agreement from the Veterans Affairs center in Martinez for the project.
But it was the second hurdle -- finding a place to teach -- that proved much harder. Although there is a shop at the VA center in Martinez, it was off-limits to the project because of liability.
But Lipscomb and Killen were undeterred.
"In 2012, we were able to get a place on the back porch of a building that had a cover over it so it was protected," Lipscomb said.
"We set up a portable table. The most important tool is the workbench; it holds down things, keeps things steady ..." Lipscomb said. "We had about three people (working) with three vets."
Lipscomb, a Vietnam-era veteran, said the goal is to work with the Veterans Affair center to help military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
This year, the project got a big boost from Mt. Diablo Adult Education, making it possible for the disabled veterans to attend their woodworking classes free of charge.
After Bailey and Deitch made two or three Shaker chip boxes, as well as hinged jewelry boxes, they were ready to move on to building a Shaker-style table with a sliding drawer and floating top.
Deitch and Lipscomb inspect a table Deitch has begun working on in Lipscomb's garage.
"It's a map table from the Office of the Commander post at San Francisco's Presidio," Lipscomb says. "It was in pretty bad shape."
Deitch circles the table and pulls the drawer out, and then closes it.
"This is the first time I've taken on a piece of fine furniture," Deitch says, allowing pride to show on his face as he runs his hand across the tabletop.
With every new piece, woodworkers utilize the skills they've mastered and then add new skills. They use hand tools, many of which are old and have been salvaged and restored by Lipscomb.
"Both David and Tim were extraordinarily generous with their time and tools to me and Noah," Deitch says.
Learning to use the hand tools to create a piece of furniture is a small part of what the woodworking classes do for veterans suffering from myriad wounds inflicted during combat.
The time spent in class provides an opportunity for these veterans to develop new memories in a non-war context and place that helps them ease back into their civilian community.
The program is able to accommodate any veteran. When Deitch first began, he did not have use of his legs so the worktable had to be adjusted for him to use.
Master woodworkers Harold Mantle, Ron Kersey and Dan Salter joined Killen and Lipscomb in mentoring veterans. The project has turned into a program that now has a place, and Lipscomb says he is hoping to reach more veterans.
"I would like to have five or six students maximum on a returning basis," said Lipscomb.
Fall classes begin Monday, Sept. 9, at the Mt. Diablo Adult Education Center in Pleasant Hill. For more information on the veterans project and startup classes, call David Lipscomb at 925-283-8865. For information about other woodworking classes and additional offerings through Mt. Diablo Adult Education, visit www.mdusd.k12.ca.us/adulted/lifelongeducation.htm, or call 925-685-7340 or 925-937-1530.