This is the second installment of Forest 2 Home’s conversation with U.S Marines veteran and retired law enforcement officer turned woodworker, Mike Legregni. Through this conversation, Mike lays out the timeline of his personal history: from childhood, to the U.S. marines, to law enforcement, to woodworking and more. He details how he now is able to give back to other veterans through woodworking and how he plans to establish ways to better connect the woodworking community.
From the Marine Corps to Woodworking
Madeleine: You mentioned being in the Marine Corps. You hadn’t done woodworking prior to the Marine Corps but you said you’ve been working with your hands all your life. Where does working with your hands all your life and being in the Marine Corps transpire to your investment in woodworking now?
Mike: Good question. So when I was younger, I was a skater, right? Like I was a punk skater. I always was in hockey but I was also a skater and as a skater, you have to do maintenance on your skates or skateboard. And then I was a BMX biker. We had all kinds of trails at my house. So its like taking apart bikes, down to stripping the bike apart and replacing the bearings, the neck, you name it. I did everything. I was always cleaning something, doing maintenance on a skateboard or a roller blade or a BMX bike. And then I was building ramps as a kid, all kinds of crazy ramps to put on the street. I was holding a hammer and nail when I was 13-years-old or 14-years-old, banging plywood in the street to put together a ramp.
My dad would help me. My dad was a carpenter and he definitely showed me how to use tools properly. He showed me his snap on set-he would always yell at me, “Always make sure you put things back where you found them, don’t ever leave a mess” and maybe that’s where I get some of it from.
I’m big into cars, too. As soon as I got my license, my first car was a mustang so I started learning, how do we make it faster? What comes off? What goes on? What can we swap out to go faster?
And then when I joined the Marine Corps, it was prior to 9/11 and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to go serve. My uncles we all green berets, special forces, my Dad was in the army…they all told me-cause there was no 9/11, there was no Taliban, there was no war-they told me to go to the military, get a good trade and make the best out of it. They said, when you come out, look at us-half of them had drinking problems, half of them had PTSD…all three, my father and my two special forces uncles, have all passed away not having lived very long lives. They all suffered traumatic injuries being in Vietnam. So they would say, listen, we support you going into the Marine Corps, but just make sure you get a trade out of it. Don’t just go there to shoot stuff and blow things up because there are very limited job opportunities on the civilian side of that.
At that time, back in 1999, 1998, there wasn’t all these flag consulting training companies that we have now because now we’ve been at war for like 20 years. And all these Navy seals and special forces dudes have formed this community of training and it’s a very popular thing now. Regardless, I went to the Marine Corps as an aircraft mechanic, and I worked on aircrafts for about two and a half years doing structural maintenance and hydraulic maintenance. Learned a lot about tools and what made things function. Took that after 9/11 and transitioned to a different job which was diplomatic security in embassies. I didn’t pick up a tool for three or four years, just did strictly diplomatic security.
Then when I got out of the Marine Corps in 2006, it was right back into cars. I had been saving up a ton of money over time. I was shipping car parts home the whole time I was overseas and just hoarded parts because I wanted to build this racecar. And I did! I got out of the Marine Corps, put this car together and did everything on the car except for painting essentially. I did all the welding, did all the electrical, the fuel, the wiring. It was a fast car, a very fast car but it was a good experience learning more to work with my hands.
I got hired as a commercial HVAC mechanic working for another friend of mine who owned a race car also. Then I worked formally as a HVAC mechanic-more tools, more hands, more electrical, more knowledge about how to and how things work. You have to really analyze how things work and pick up the knowledge.
That kind of rolled into being a cop in 2010. I got hired as a cop and the whole time I was a cop, I was always on the side, like low key tinkering with cars, keeping myself busy with mechanics. And that just rolled in.
There was no formal woodworking experience, never knew what a planer did, never knew what a CNC machine was until making my first flag. But I think that my background and my ability to kind of look at something, analyze it…I was able to pick up on it quickly.
The benefits of woodworking for veterans
Madeleine: You have a pretty significant trajectory to woodworking and what brought you here today. I mentioned to you previously, Forest 2 Home has a substantial community of veterans. We have military service members and veterans alike, really. A lot of what we hear is woodworking specifically is a huge outlet for veterans. You mentioned you teach a class, so how have you seen woodworking benefit veterans and benefit military service members?
Mike: So, before I get to the class, because I’ll tell the classes…the class is a result of what I initially did, an initial idea. The initial idea was about two years ago, pre COVID-19. It was the fall, because I remember what I was wearing! I had gone to do a donation-I do a lot of work with nonprofits in New Jersey. If they need a sign, I’ll donate a sign. If they want me to make things to give away, I’ll make things for giving away. I’m going to make sure I tell everyone that again-in New Jersey, because I can’t afford to be shipping things all over the country if its free.
So there is a local nonprofit called the New Jersey Veterans Network and they said, “Hey, would you mind coming to this? We’re doing a clothing drive.” So it was veterans, that needed help with resume building, if they’re either homeless or without a job. And they do a resume building seminar plus free business attire. We would donate business attire and local stores would donate business attire that wasn’t selling and if you’re a veteran in need, you go there and pick out a suit off the rack and then you can go through and do a resume class on the spot. And they have recruiters from the VA and different contractors that were actively looking for people to apply.
So they just asked me, “Would you mind coming and speaking?” Just to give like a little pep in the room and also asked if I would be okay donating somethings? Sure. So I made random things, as we call them and I went there and I did a donation. I introduced myself like “Hey, my names Mike. I’m a former cop, Veteran Wood Co., bah bah bah” and at the time Veteran Wood Co. didn’t even have business cards it was so new.
One of the gentlemen had asked me if I would mind coming to his veteran PTSD impatient clinic at the VA. He is the actual mentor for all these inpatient veterans that have to be there-whether its court ordered or mandated or whether they check themselves in and they can’t leave. So he said, would you mind coming to speak to our group because you’re young, I think you can relate. I said sure.
I went there with an open mind to talk about my life and how I transitioned from law enforcement to woodwork and how it’s helped me. I went there and they all loved it. One kid in the back row, he said “Hey man, you should run our woodshop!”
Pre-COVID they had a woodshop but the director shut it down because it was a “dangerous” hobby. Then I show up and I’m like “Hey, I think it’s a great hobby.” Let’s write this director a letter and see if I can get his attention. This was pre Stepcraft, pre garage makeover, pre everything. So we wrote the director a letter, got a petition going online and within the first week, had like a thousand signatures. Then we had like 2,000 and then a month goes by and we are at 90,000 signatures. It went VIRAL.
Everyone loved it, we had a camera crew in here. We shot a video, a promo video and then did a collaborative video with 10 other woodworkers on Instagram, all veterans, and everyone sent me a one minute clip as to why woodworking has helped them, whether they do it as a hobby or as a hobby. I had all these veteran woodworkers sending me a video with their name, their service, their branch, their company name and how woodworking has helped them as veterans. We put it on YouTube and it was sent to the director along with a PDF printed packed of the 90,000 signatures.
Stepcraft and Tools Today both came on, along with Home Depot, along with a grant saying anything you guys need, we will donate. But then, the next week, COVID happens. I submitted the packed last week of February and then boom, lock down happens. I never heard back from the director. Just never heard back, whether or not it was a yes or no. I assume it was a no because of COVID, so I didn’t want to push my luck but there was a backup plan.
The backup plan, at the time in case they had turned it down, was to get a space and bring people into that space, rather then them being locked on [Veteran Association] campus. That idea kind of faded away because of COVID and we all got trapped in our houses and I began to focus on the growth of Veteran Wood Co. But I started teaching these webinars online after getting a lot of requests regarding digital creation and CNC design.
I saw other woodworkers charging for their time to do a consult and I thought, well I’m getting people asking me but I think it’s kind of elfish to be charging. It’s a community thing…
Bringing together the woodworking and maker community
I started the Maker Community Project, which is officially a nonprofit. I just filed like two weeks ago! The idea is, there is a team of 10 of us. There is a whole bunch of makers out there and we are all getting a lot of questions. Rather than just giving free advice, we are going to point people with questions to buying a t-shirt that says Maker Community Project, with all the proceeds that go towards a fund. Then they can pick our brains whenever they like, while supporting a cause.
The mission of the Maker Community Project is to give back to makers in need. The need could be disabled veterans, disabled woodworkers, any kind of woodworker or anybody who’s making that needs something, that has a disadvantage whether its physically, mentally or financially.
Two weeks ago, we did our first fundraiser because a woodworker in the community cut himself twice on his table saw, so we raised $4,000 for him in 24 hours. So we purchased him a SawStop, purchased some attachments and some accessories for it and we shipped it off to Colorado. That was our first donation for the Maker Community Project.
It kind of ties with the who veterans woodshop because I’ve kind of given up [with the Veterans Association] because I don’t think the director is going to go for it. So I need to expand pretty quickly to do all of this. Veteran Wood Co. needs employees, we need apprentices, we need administrative work done. So I’m going to be looking at purchasing a building soon or a rental property, where we are going to run Veteran Wood Co. from Monday to Friday and we’re going to have a veteran maker space whenever the time is right. I can bring the vents in from the Veterans Association; take the idea from the VA and move it to a different location.
To watch the full conversation with Mike, head to the @shopf2h page on Instagram for his IGTV Instagram Live conversation and future live interviews with woodworkers!
If you have questions for Mike leave them down below! Are you a veteran maker? Send your woodworking journey to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for your service and Happy Woodworking!