‘You have to ask for help’: San Antonio nonprofit forges community for veterans through knife-making

Monthly classes from Reforged include a nontraditional peer-support group for veterans and first responders.

By Molly-Jo TiltonAugust 15, 2023 10:15 am, ,

This story discusses suicide. If you or a loved one needs help, call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

In San Antonio, where August days are regularly over 100 degrees, most people try to stay inside or retreat to a cool body of water to avoid the heat.

But not the folks at Reforged, who measure temperature in the thousands.

The nonprofit holds a free monthly knife-making class for veterans and first responders that comes with all the necessary materials – as well as peer support designed for a group of people who often struggle with PTSD and depression.

Lead instructor Nathan Healey said he’s heard many stories of instructors meeting a man on the verge of ending his life – until the Reforged class brought him into a community.

“They introduced him to a new set of people and friends and a support group, and it changed his life. It saved his life, and then it changed it,” Healey said. “You know, that’s the biggest, craziest thing about this, is you got these guys that are struggling, you give them a purpose and a set of friends, and then they’re renewed.” 

Molly-Jo Tilton / Texas Standard

Instructors Nathan Healey and Garrett Fenner inspect a student’s blade, looking for any warps or cracks.

‘Our focus has always been one person’

Years ago, the class began in a backyard with just one student. It was after taking a knife-making class with his son that founder Chad Caylor, a retired paratrooper, had the idea to start the Reforged program. 

He remembers telling his wife how therapeutic the knife-making process could be, but he didn’t plan on getting Reforged started right away – until he got a call about a suicidal veteran. So he invited the man to his house and taught him how to make a knife. 

Word quickly spread about the program. 

“We didn’t have a schedule,” Caylor said. “It was just as people would call, and then we just started getting more and more calls.” 

He kept teaching classes. And as he worked with the veterans, they’d talk about their struggles. His wife, a licensed counselor, helped him refine the program. 

“She would come out, watch what I was doing and how it’s interacting with people, and then she’d give me pointers,” Caylor said. “‘All right, this would be a good place to say this’ or ‘this would be a good place to say that.’ And so we just kept revising it. And then before we knew it, we were doing like a class a month.” 

Molly-Jo Tilton / Texas Standard

Reforged founder Chad Caylor demonstrates proper sanding technique for handle shaping during a class in August.

The program has now outgrown the Caylors’ backyard. But their mission is still the same. 

“Our focus has always been one person. And if we can help one person, then we’re doing good,” he said. 

But running a nonprofit like Reforged isn’t always easy. Caylor still works full-time and runs four small businesses. At times, it’s hard not to get discouraged. 

“There are times where I really don’t want to do it anymore,” Caylor said. “But then we’ll meet that one person that reinvigorates you.” 

Healey was one of those people. Before he became lead instructor, he took the class himself. Caylor tried to hire him on the spot. 

Healey said no at first, but the community kept him coming back. Eventually he accepted the position. 

“To me, it’s a group of guys that are always going to understand what I’m going through,” he said. “Every veteran I’ve ever met, we always jive on some level I can’t understand.” 

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Learning how to create a knife from start to finish

In the August class, most of the men were in their 30s and 40s, and many had been battle-tested. But at Reforged, they’re all learners. 

On day one, they start with a rectangular piece of steel and begin to form a knife through repeated heating and hammering. It’s the most physically demanding day. 

The goal is to have a rough shape by the end of the day, but progress can be slow – which can be discouraging for even the toughest in the group. Healey remembers that feeling from his first class.

“When you first feel that fire coming out of the forge, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t think I can do this,’” he said. “And you’re guzzling water, and you’re sweating like a pig. And your arms are breaking because you can’t swing a hammer.”

Chris Hoagland inspects his metal in the forge. Steel should be a glowing orange before students remove it and start working it.
Molly-Jo Tilton / Texas Standard

But the physical labor is actually a key part of the program. For veterans and first responders, groups that are more likely to develop PTSD, depression and anxiety, it can become a healthy distraction.

Overnight, the blades are softened so that they can be ground to shape.

On day two, they’ll go through the quench, a process in which the steel is heated to about 1,500 degrees, then plunged into hot oil. This hardens the blade but makes it very brittle.

Later the blades will be heat tempered to make them strong, and students will begin to fit their handles. Then, as the blades cool, the group breaks for lunch and the huddle – what Caylor calls an “openly hidden peer-support group” that Reforged alumni receive an open invitation to return to whenever they need.

But Healey said some students find it difficult to open up.

“We got a lot of these veterans that feel like they’re too tough, too macho to really feel their feelings,” he said. “So the huddle is important because it kind of helps them realize your feelings aren’t wrong; your feelings are natural. Everyone has those feelings, you know, and it helps them realize that we all went through this stuff.”

» MORE: See additional reporting about American military life and veterans from the American Homefront Project

One of the students, retired paratrooper Raul Aguilar, said he used to be closed off from his emotions. It was when he saw his own kids adopting that closed-off approach that be began joining more events like Reforged.

“We grow up being Mexican-American, Spanish-American, whatever you want to call us – we grow up with ‘hold your feelings in as men.’ You’re supposed to hold it in,” he said. “And then when you join the military, it enhances that.”

For fellow student Taje Brooks, a San Antonio firefighter, the class is a safe space for first responders to prioritize their mental health.

“Since I’ve been in the fire department, I have noticed there’s not a lot of help for the helpers,” Brooks said. “I’m five years in, and I can see how it can trend in a negative way if you don’t get a grip on it early in your career. So myself, I want to help the helpers early so that we don’t need copious amounts of programs to buy into or be in part of to help later on down the line.”

Molly-Jo Tilton / Texas Standard

Taje Brooks, left, admires Chris Hoagland’s progress. Hoagland brought in a Damascus blade, which put him slightly behind in the refining process.

‘If we don’t ask for help, we’re going to struggle’

Chad Caylor taught six students to make knives in 2018, the year he started Reforged. This year, the group has already taught almost 200.

The growth raised some logistical issues for a nonprofit with limited funding, so the group relies on materials that have been recycled or donated. But using recycled materials quickly took on a deeper meaning.

“We realized that many vets and first responders, especially if they’re no longer able to serve in those positions, feel discarded,” he said. “And so then it became like a mission for us to find stuff that was thrown away to use.”

A blade is sharpened on the grinder during the Reforged class in August.
Molly-Jo Tilton / Texas Standard

That message really resonated with Caylor, too.

“Just because we’re not doing what we originally thought we were designed to do – and we’re doing something else – doesn’t mean it’s got to be a bad thing,” he said.

And though the program has changed over the years, the main goal is the same.

“You have to ask for help. We’re going to tell you what to do, and then we walk away. And if you don’t come back and ask for help, then you’re going to struggle,” Caylor said. “That’s the way life is, though. If we don’t ask for help, we’re going to struggle a lot more than we need to.”

On the third and final day of the class, the students attach their handles and add finishing touches, like a sharp edge or a sheath.

By the end of the day, they’ll leave with a new knife – and they’ll also have a new community they can return to whenever they may need it.

Molly-Jo Tilton / Texas Standard

Students and instructors pose for a group picture at the end of their Reforged class. Front row, from left: Garrett Fenner, Peter Baron, Chris Hoagland, Juan Pinalez, Raul Aguilar, Nathan Healey. Back row: Joe Burks, Blaine Scott, Taje Brookes, Jesus Garza, Jason Jenings, Thomas Taylor.

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