JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas --
Tucked away in a circle of 1800’s refurbished homes, banging and chiseling sounds pour through the cracks, spilling onto a big front porch hosting a mountain of a man who blocks out the swinging screen door behind him.
Tony Fantasia, the man with a bear paw that could crush someone’s hand, operates a hand-made hobby shop that doubles as an opportunity for a different type of reform, one for reshaping invisible wounds.
“We can do about any type of artwork you can imagine in here,” the former medic said. “If one of us regular guys can’t do it, I guarantee we know someone who does. Honestly though, this isn’t really about leather or stone or whatever, this is about help.”
Shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks on the United States., Fantasia found himself deployed to Southwest Asia to set up a medical facility.
“Things were rough out there then, not that they still aren’t, but it was early sledding,” he said while chuckling about posting up Temper Tents on a slab to serve as their hospital. “I saw things out there that changed me. Things that took…take…some work to get ahold of.”
The Army Sgt. recalls his first patient, Neshama, a small malnourished child who was guessed to be between 10 to 12 years old based on the size of his teeth and brought in for a serious skull injury.
Fantasia’s team treated Neshama and gave him a fighting chance, but with a long road to recovery after coming out of his coma.
“I was with him the whole time, from pick-up to the emergency room to the operating room and through his rehab,” he said with eyes that seemed to travel millions of miles away. “We put together a makeshift wheelchair and he became part of our team, part of our family.”
Almost a year later, Neshama was taken back to his village, along with all of the stuffed animals he had acquired during his months with the team. The village elders dispersed the toys to the other children, causing Neshama to become upset.
“As was their way, one of the elders plunked him over the head as a correction for the tantrum,” Fantasia said. “The blow went through his graft and killed Neshama, our little boy. It was hard to deal with what had happened before I left. He was basically like my son and he died after we spent almost a year healing him.”
Emotionally wrecked, Fantasia returned to the U.S. for a little over a year before redeploying to another location to run an emergency room.
“Listen, I’m very humbled and blessed to have served my country,” Fantasia said before starting to tap his head. “But, I had some things that weren’t right afterward and I wasn’t sure how to really deal with them. It has taken me years to get to where I don’t hate people. I mean years, to get where I don’t avoid them like the plague.”
Shortly after separating from the Army, Fantasia needed a new wallet but didn’t have the cash inside his old one to buy what he wanted. His wife jokingly told him, “just go out there and make one.”
So, he did.
“I went out to the store and bought a little leather wallet making kit,” he said. “It saved my life. Doing leatherwork is the reason I have friends. This outlet is why I have a family still, or a job or anything.”
Fantasia poured all of his time and energy, all the memories of his hands in service member’s bodies, into the mundane task of crafting that wallet.
It still sits in his shop full of items that have soaked up his blood, sweat and tears while he traveled through the invisible ailments that accumulated to post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I’d never done leatherwork before,” he said. “But through the process of crafting this (beating the wallet on his desk) and many of these items in this building, I came to a place of peace. I finished this ugly, raw, imperfect wallet. You know what though, it functions and that’s metaphor for me.”
After years of improving his craft, Fantasia began inviting others struggling with PTSD to his shop. Many are prior military, but not all of them.
“I so thoroughly enjoyed stumbling my way through that wallet, I just thought maybe this could help other people too,” he said. “We’ve had loads of guys come through here and sometimes they stay for a long time and sometimes they come and get what they need and then I don’t hear from them again. That’s fine.”
Fantasia said he doesn’t care what their background is, he just wants to bring together individuals who can share their talent to those who have something to work through.
The process of leatherwork, stone carving, metalwork or any other task is just a means to gather people who are struggling and provide an opportunity for them to come out of their shell in a safe place.
“For most people who struggle with PTSD, they don’t need difficult,” he said. “Leaving their bedroom can be difficult enough. Simple projects get their senses engaged, that’s what we want to do. Let them smell the leather, feel the stone, hear the sounds of working on stuff, and all of that surrounded by people who understand if they dive under the workbench because something fell on the ground.“
Fantasia said people who struggle with PTSD shouldn’t feel alone and what they are going through isn’t the end.
“You may have to continuously work on it just like some of our projects in here, but little by little, keep working on it,” he said. “The beauty isn’t in the finished product, but it’s the imperfections that you work through while you try and get to a better place that gives it meaning.”