NEW ORLEANS -- When Lance Cpl. Benjamin S. Condra volunteered to leave Trenton, Ga., and go south to provide humanitarian assistance to the scores of U.S. citizens affected by Hurricane Katrina, he knew it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. As he traveled through the devastation left by the category-four storm, he picked up a few pieces of history to take with him.
“I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go,” said Condra, a full-time student majoring in music and engineering at Tennessee Temple University. “But then I was at school and I saw a note on the bulletin board with student names who hadn’t heard anything from loved ones since the hurricane happened. I thought, ‘Hey, anything to help these guys out.’
“I went to a lot of different areas and I would see a tree, or something that had blown down, so I would take a limb and start to carve it with my knife,” he said, recounting the beginning of his 21-piece -- and growing -- project.
Condra discovered he had a knack for carving after a few failed attempts. His prized possessions now include a complete chess set.
“My parents were missionaries and we traveled around a lot,” he said, trying to explain the roots of his natural talent. “We didn’t have TV, so a lot of the things we did were outdoor-type of things.”
The backdrop of open road and open skies set the stage for what has become talk of the camp.
“I started with the knight, and it was the first time I was successful in carving without having something break off. I figured if I can do that, I may as well do the whole set.”
Condra operates a seven-ton truck for his reserve unit, Mike Battery, 3rd Battalion, 14th Marines. His job entails a lot of travel and then some down time, which he used to hone his creative edge.
“I went to a few different devastated areas, like Slidell, Gulfport, and New Orleans, and picked up scraps of wood from all those places. After I finish a piece, I’ll write the date and where I got it on the bottom.”
Condra’s craftiness has turned out to be beneficial not only for his own satisfaction, but for his wallet as well.
“My gunnery sergeant said he’s interested in buying it, but this isn’t the end. I’m thinking about starting on a second one,” he said hopefully.
“I enjoy the solitude and working with wood,” he added, “and I definitely want to remember this trip,” his first deployment. “I’ve been in the Marine Corps Reserves for about a year and a half, and I really enjoyed the chance to get to know Mike Battery better. It’s (been) a very unique and worthwhile experience.”