There are many ways to thank Soldiers for their service. Boyce Allen found a unique and special way to tell Soldiers thank you.

Allen, Wood Shop lead for Morale Welfare and Recreation's Arts and Crafts Center, created "Turn-a-thon" after he heard about the Freedom Pens Project from a neighbor. The project is an all-volunteer effort that has its roots in Virginia with the Saw Mill Creek Woodworkers Forum. Allen pitched the idea to his supervisors; and the first Turn-a-thon was held on Redstone Arsenal in February 2007, with the most recent Feb. 22.

More than 80 volunteers have signed up locally to help with the project since its inception, and almost 2,700 pens have been made from the Arts and Crafts Center. The Feb. 22 event produced an additional 140 pens from approximately 30 volunteers. The pens will be shipped to deploying Soldiers as well as to Soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Volunteer Reid Benton said the event is a great opportunity to pay back Soldiers for what they do. As a retired Navy pilot and commander, Benton knows what it is like to be deployed and away from the family for long periods of time.

"We owe a debt of gratitude, and this is just a small way to pay them back," he said.
Don Severn, a retired Army staff sergeant and volunteer from the Space and Missile Defense Command, said he originally signed up with MWR to learn woodworking. The intelligence analyst heard about the Turn-a-thons and immediately signed up.

"Since I'm not serving anymore, this is something I can do for the troops," Severn said. Using the Arts and Crafts shop, Severn has made anything from pens and boxes to candlestick holders. His next goal is to learn bowl turning. "I got hooked bad," he said smiling.

"It's very rewarding," Severn said, adding that MWR provides all the equipment anyone needs. Turn-a-thon volunteers have a variety of backgrounds and professions and include men and women in active duty, retirees, family members, government civilians and contractors. They range from ages 12 to 76. "Everyone clicks together," Severn said.

Volunteers meet bimonthly to learn the trade and prepare for the next Turn-a-thon. About 150 pens are made at each event. And volunteers, working on their own, contribute another 30 pens per week.

The pens are handcrafted and mailed directly to the unit's chaplain for distribution. From 100-130 pens are mailed out at any one time. Each pen is placed in a plastic sheath for protection during mailing. Included with each pen is an information sheet that indicates who donated the pen kit and who turned the wood.

The wood used in making the pens is both domestic and foreign varieties. Pieces of wood left over from projects by Arts and Crafts patrons, and pieces of wood that are not useful for furniture because of imperfections, are collected for Turn-a-thons.

"We don't have to buy wood at all," Allen said. He also collects wood scraps from individuals that donate them to the shop. "Because of the variety of wood we collect, each pen is actually given its own character," he said.

Allen relies on donations from organizations to help fund the project since the materials used during Turn-a-thons are not government appropriated. "It costs about $600 to $700 for each event," he said. Money for the Freedom Pens goes to pen kits, including all the internal hardware for a pen, sandpaper, steel wool, glue and wood finished, pen pouches and mailing costs.

The Redstone-Huntsville Chapter of the Association of the U.S. Army sponsored the Feb. 22 event. The last sponsor was Women in Defense, and other organizations have indicated interest in sponsoring future events.

Allen has already received responses from the units that received the pens. Soldiers use them to write letters to their families at home, friends at work, or keep them as souvenirs.

Each wood is unique in both color and grain pattern.

"They are truly one of a kind," Allen said, "intended for very special recipients, our servicemembers."