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Out of the woods

With the guiding light of a soulmate who was gone too soon, veteran reconnects with a craft that gives him new purpose


The pain never really goes away.
Former Fort Bragg soldier Kurt Ballash says he hurts on a daily basis from an injury he suffered while overseas in 2016.
After a couple of years working on a contract basis as a medic with the U.S. Department of State, he returned home after falling off the top of a vehicle. He landed flat on his back with all his body armor on.
The fall dislodged his vertebrae, compounding an earlier back injury he suffered while serving in the military. He says his spine “came down a little bit,” causing an impingement.
With every breath, he says, it felt like someone had plunged an icepick into his ribs, sending an electrical stimulation to his sternum.
“It made it really hard for me to breathe,” Ballash says. “The pain would get so bad I would just sit there on the couch and cry.”
His wife, Jamie, tried to be supportive, but there was little she could do to ease his suffering. She urged her husband to return to his love of woodworking that had been nurtured by his grandfather and father.
Today — two years after Jamie’s death from a heart attack — Ballash’s wife remains a strong influence on his path after military service and employment overseas as a contractor.
“She was a driving force from behind it,” says Steve Chadduck, who took up leatherwork after his own Army tenure and is the owner of Spartan Customs, which shares a building with Ballash’s woodworking shop in the Cedar Creek community on the outskirts of Fayetteville.
“He had a vision of sorts,” says Chadduck, 49. “Even now, she is still driving him. Even down to his logo: She designed that logo.
“It’ll get you. It’ll move you to tears,” he says, removing his glasses and wiping his eyes.
Because of his injuries, Ballash says, he was deemed unable to return to the battlefield.
“So, I lost my entire identity as to who I was,” he says. “I was a powerlifter; I was a respected tactical medic in my field. The injuries I sustained were interfering with my ability to be a combat asset. My hands would start going numb, and I couldn’t feel my trigger finger. If I was on the battlefield like that and I couldn’t feel my trigger finger anymore, it’s only a matter of time before you have a negligent discharge or something like that.”
The ensuing struggle with identity also affected his weightlifting prowess. Ballash says he was once ranked in the Top 25 in his weight class nationwide.
Now, two years shy of reaching 40, he has a head full of spikey black hair and a bushy red beard that has turned white around the edges.
Woodworking would be the answer.
Woodworking would be the medicine he needed.
The intricate detail work on handcrafted live-edge wood furniture — designed for home or office — allowed him to concentrate on his trade rather than the constant discomfort of his physical injuries.
He opened Ballash Woodworks in 2018, specializing in custom design, custom furniture and design fabrication.
As he says on his website, Kurt Ballash found peace in the process of creation.

From pain, a purpose
In 2017, Ballash attended a military retreat through the Lone Survivor Foundation in Corpus Christi, Texas. While there, he tried different treatments and therapies for post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety while using meditation and yoga to stave off the pain. He also tried acupuncture.
To him, it was like the therapists were throwing everything at a wall, hoping something would stick.
None of it worked for him.
While at the retreat, he talked with other veterans who were trying to heal from invisible wartime wounds.
“I kind of came home with this,” says Ballash, dressed in a weathered Popeye T-shirt. “If I’m going to be in pain, I need to have a purpose.”
Jamie died at age 40 on March 31, 2020, about a month and a half short of her 41st birthday. They met when he became her personal trainer at the former Bordeaux Day Spa in Fayetteville. They were together for a little over 12 years in all and married in 2011.
Nine years later, she was gone, and his suffering only worsened with the loss.
“Jamie was the central factor of where I am today,” he says.
Jamie had a creative soul. She was an artist, painter and graphic designer.
She built the Ballash Woodworks website.
“She helped me go from a hobbyist to someone in the community who creates what customers want,” Ballash says. “Originally, there were four of us involved, but Jamie and I were the visionaries.
“Jamie was the heart behind it. She was the true altruism behind it. I was the planner.”
In addition to the woodworking shop, they founded Artisans Outreach, which provides training and mentorship to active-duty soldiers, veterans and their family members who want to learn artisan skills and find an outlet for their creativity.
Other than woodworking, Artisans Outreach offers classes in trades such as leatherworking, glass blowing, photography and pottery.
“We wanted to do this as a nonprofit,” Ballash says of his wife and their partners in Artisans Outreach. “I just know I wanted to achieve something. She would point me in the right way when I needed to be pointed. She made sure I was on direction.
“That was what Jamie was to me — she was like my sea anchor. She kept me grounded and pointing in a consistent direction,” Ballash says. “She brought me God. She kind of helped get rid of the anger stored in my heart, feeling like I was betrayed by a lot of people. She was the person who saw through a lot of facades I had in front of me from years of being in the environment I was in.
“She kind of saw what was really inside of me and had a way of bringing out that other side of me.”
Ballash found solace when he again took up the woodworking tools that his grandfather had given him in 2012.
“Guys like me need to be doing this with their hands. It’s what I feel is my purpose,” he says.

Back to nature
Growing up in Cleveland, Ballash spent time in a woodworking shop that his grandfather started after serving in the Korean War. While Ballash was in the service, he would return home on leave and spend a few days with his grandfather in the shop.
His grandfather and father would craft custom cabinets; Ballash says he picked up what skills he could while providing a helping hand.
He loves to work with wood because of its natural quality.
“It’s real,” he says.
Ballash especially relishes working with cherry wood.
“The smell of it, the way it works, the way it feels. Everything about cherry is a pleasure to work with.”
Ballash, a stocky man who stands about 5-foot-5, says he “bootstrapped” his business.
“I literally built it with only the resources and materials that I inherited from my grandfather,” he adds. “The reason why I started playing around with wood again after I got out of the service was because we had the tools in my garage from my grandfather and some pallets that my wife spontaneously wanted me to make a table out of.
“If I had not inherited those tools, I don’t know that I would have fallen back into woodworking like I have. I might not have returned to the creative side of lumber.”
The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, inspired him to action. In 2003, Ballash joined the Army and started out as a combat engineer. A year later, he was training military dogs to detect explosive threats with the Royal Army Veterinary Corps.
He later became a combat medic.
“I was taking people off the battlefield,” he says.
During his military career, Ballash served seven deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan and Qatar.

Putting struggles behind
On a hot, humid day in late July, Ballash was working on some new projects with Connor Gaede, 28, in the 2,800-square-foot building that houses his woodworking shop.
A skylight provides natural lighting amid stacks of lumber and woodworking projects underway. The building is not far from a cluster of hotels and restaurants off Cedar Creek Road by the exit from Interstate 95.
The lumber is for sale to customers, but it’s also the wood that Ballash and Gaede use for their custom woodworking ventures. It’s mostly domestic hardwoods but some exotic woods, too.
“If it’s made out of wood, we do it,” says Erin Zynda, 36, who is now Ballash’s partner in his private life and a full-time collaborator at work.
They have been together for about a year.
Zynda says she never met Ballash’s wife, Jamie, and notes she has not replaced her at the shop.
“I’m not an artist, and I don’t have graphic design skills,” she says from her office.
But she has become an integral part of Kurt Ballash’s business.
Around the shop are projects in the works that include a printer stand made from ash wood; a handicap-accessible crib; a bar top on which a logo for a military unit on Fort Bragg would be cut out; an oak-stump coffee table; an ash pedestal table; a Wenge cigar humidor; and a couple of soft-maple conference tables.
“We’re booked three to six months out now,” Ballash says.
He hopes to boost the retail side of the business by making more items like cutting boards, coasters and cornhole game stands for commercial outlets. Gaede says right now, they sell those items at the Downtown Market in Fayetteville.
After a long spell of struggling with inner demons and a lack of purpose, Ballash has found a way forward.
Jamie gave him direction when he needed it most.
“When Jamie passed,” he says, “it was a painful experience. But the community of people that have rallied behind me, despite that loss, was transformative on a number of levels for our business. I believe 100% that Jamie is up there with God and interceding on our behalf, dropping little hints into the right person’s ear. We always just make it. Whenever we’re shy or whenever we’re feeling stressed, whenever we’re kind of on the verge, we always make it.
“I feel like that’s partially her, still kind of doing what she always did best. Seeing the better in me. Seeing the better in the people that I have around me. And trying to provide for us.”