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'Grandpa and Grandma Walking Stick'

MAYVILLE, N.D. -- A Portland, N.D., couple was honored Friday for helping wounded U.S. soldiers, something the event's organizer said "should have been done a long time ago."...

Phyllis and Dennis Enger (right) of Portland, N.D. listen as they are introduced by Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., at a recognition ceremony at the VFW hall in Mayville, N.D., on Friday for their donation of over 400 walking sticks the couple have donated to Walter Reed Hospital. Herald photo by John Stennes.

MAYVILLE, N.D. -- A Portland, N.D., couple was honored Friday for helping wounded U.S. soldiers, something the event's organizer said "should have been done a long time ago."

Dennis and Phyllis Enger have made more than 400 walking sticks the past five years that have been given for free to soldiers who lost limbs while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Family, friends, politicians and representatives of veterans groups got together Friday at the VFW in Mayville, N.D., to honor their hard work and give them some time in the limelight.

Dan Stenvold, mayor of Park River, N.D., and president of the North Dakota Vietnam Veterans of America, said he put the surprise event together because the Engers have a reputation at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., where their walking sticks are given to soldiers.

"They're known as Grandpa and Grandma Walking Stick out there," Stenvold said.


"They're well known for what they do at Walter Reed, and I think if they're known out there, they should be known in North Dakota for what they do," he added.

'We're not done'

Dennis said he started making the sticks about five years ago.

"I'd always worked with wood but never walking sticks," he said, explaining that he worked as a tree cutter before retiring.

He decided to give it a try after he heard about a friend's grandson who had lost a leg in Iraq, and said he felt like he needed to do something to help.

Dennis first made three walking sticks and had Stenvold, his friend who attends national Vietnam Veterans of America meetings in Washington several times a year, deliver the batch to wounded soldiers who live in Walter Reed's Mologne House.

Stenvold said the first few went to two triple amputees and a man who had lost both his legs.

"These guys were so proud of these sticks that one of the guys ... he took out a knife and started carving his name in it because he was afraid somebody might try to take it away from him," he said.


When Dennis heard how much the soldiers appreciated his handiwork, he got back to work and made another 50 for Stenvold to bring to Washington.

The Engers got to see the soldiers' reactions firsthand in 2007 when they delivered another 110 walking sticks to the Mologne House for Veterans Day. Dennis said being there was an "unbelievable" and touching experience that was hard to see without getting teary-eyed.

"We were there about 3½ hours that day and I had to go outside at least four times and go around the block," he said. "You can't cry in front of these guys. These guys are heroes."

Dennis planned for that to be the last batch he would make because each stick takes about five hours of craftsmanship. He uses only swamp willow grown on his son-in-law's Drake, N.D., farm, then strips the bark, sands it and lets it dry for months before putting on several coats of stain and polyurethane.

"I told Dan when we went out there, 'I think I've done my part,'" Dennis said. "Well, we left the hospital, and about halfway back ... I said, 'We're not done. We're going to keep on.'"

Stenvold planned all the details of Friday's event over the past few weeks, including lining up Rep. Earl Pomeroy's visit and arranging to give the Engers two American flags that were flown over the U.S. Capitol and North Dakota Capitol in Bismarck in honor of their efforts.

He said the Engers have earned the recognition because the soldiers who benefit from their work get a lot more than help with walking.

"When they get these sticks, they've either got tears of joy or a smile from ear to ear," Stenvold said. "They really appreciate it. It should have been done a long time ago, but this worked out perfect."


'Common people'

Stenvold has since returned several more times to give more soldiers their own walking stick -- at last count, the Engers have made and donated more than 400 of them.

Pomeroy recognized the sacrifices that Phyllis has made over the years as her husband carves the practical but artistic sticks out of swamp willow saplings.

"In the winters, from what I understand, you convert your garage," he said. "In the summer, there goes the patio because that becomes the workshop. This has clearly been a joint effort."

But Phyllis said it's all been worth it. Getting to meet the soldiers was "the most touching experience ever," she said.

Pomeroy called the Engers' work "a North Dakota thing to do."

"It's a selfless thought about how can we help people that deserve to know that we love them and we honor their service to our country," he said.

Phyllis said she was "just thrilled" by the event, but said she's "probably unworthy" of being recognized like this.


"My most important job with the walking sticks is feeding the guy that makes them," she said.

Their daughter, Cindy, told the Herald that the event meant a lot to her family.

"They've been honored before, but nothing like this," she said.

Cindy said it had to be a surprise because if her parents had been warned ahead of time, "they probably wouldn't have showed up."

"They're just common people who just do it because they want to," she said. "They're not doing it for the honor. They're just doing it because they love the veterans and they love their country."

Dennis said being recognized was "unbelievable" and unexpected.

"I don't do this for the publicity, I'll tell you that," he said.

Dennis, now 72, has been married to his high school sweetheart, Phyllis, for 53 years. But he said he doesn't plan on taking it easy in retirement anytime soon.


The Vietnam War-era veteran of the U.S. Army said he'll keep making the walking sticks "as long as I can" because he sees it as a way of showing the soldiers how much the country appreciates their sacrifices.

"The war is not going to be over. I wish they would quit tomorrow morning so I could quit."

Reach Johnson at (701) 780-1105; (800) 477-6572, ext. 105; or send e-mail to rjohnson@gfherald.com .

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