By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneNovember 10, 2014
They reflect the nation's patriotic colors. They often showcase a traditional pattern -- Ohio Star, Fence Rail, Churn Dash and Log Cabin, to name a few. Many feature patriotic images, such as a Bald Eagle, U.S. flag or a praying Soldier. And all carry the Quilts of Valor label.
But these quilts are most remembered for the combat veterans they honor.
Wrapped in their very own Quilt of Valor, veterans across the nation have been receiving tangible gifts of love and appreciation from quilters since this nationwide grassroots program started in 2003. To date, more than 106,000 patriotic quilts -- representing the prayers, healing thoughts and gratefulness of their makers, have been presented to veterans who have fought for the nation in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Storm/Shield, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom and other conflicts around the world.
The mission of the Quilts of Valor Foundation is to "cover service members and veterans touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor." Quilts are awarded at many different levels: they may go to military hospitals where chaplains award them to service members; they may be awarded to entire service units returning from deployments; they may be awarded at veterans homes or they may be awarded individually.
In Alabama, the Quilts of Valor movement started with a group of quilters in the Enterprise Quilt Guild, many connected to the Soldiers stationed at nearby Fort Rucker. The movement went statewide three years ago when Elizabeth Mathews took over the responsibilities of Alabama's regional coordinator representing Quilts of Valor.
"Once I heard about it, I knew it was a mission I had to take on. It was the right thing to do," she said.
"My dad, retired Maj. William Flynn, was a World War II and Korean War veteran. After he retired, he taught at the ordnance school at Redstone Arsenal from 1966 to 1976, and I grew up in Huntsville. He passed away in 1981. He lied about his age to get into World War II. His generation is truly the greatest generation of all time. All the quilts I make, I make in the memory of my father."
Because of her father, Mathews felt driven to show Alabama's appreciation for its veterans through Quilts of Valor. Since taking on her state coordinator role, Mathews, with the help of her co-coordinator and daughter Kristy Cantrell, has traveled the state to recruit quilters and to present Quilts of Valor to veterans.
"I go from quilt show to quilt show, from state fair to county fair, to everything where quilters will listen to our story and, possibly, volunteer their time and their talent to make a quilt for an Alabama veteran," Mathews said.
"My major number one responsibility is to locate quilters throughout the state to make Quilts of Valor for our Alabama service members. I'm always recruiting new quilters because if a request for a quilt comes from an Alabama service member or veteran we try to make sure they get a quilt made by an Alabama quilter."
Alabama Quilts of Valor have also been donated to wounded warriors at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
"If a quilt comes in that's not designated to a recipient, then it may go to a combat veteran or wounded warrior anywhere in the nation," Mathews said.
But, with 400,000 veterans, retirees or active duty service members from Alabama, most of the Alabama quilts have an Alabama recipient waiting six to nine months to receive it. Last year, Alabama quilters donated 248 Quilts of Valor. This year, that number has already risen to 255. For such efforts, the state's Quilts of Valor program will receive this year the Soaring Eagle Award given annually to a veteran organization on Veterans Day in Birmingham, Nov. 11.
Giving the gift of a quilt
It was with pride that Mathews joined the Lakeside Quilters of Guntersville on Oct. 11 to present Quilts of Valor to three veterans at the guild's quilt show. Each quilter made the Quilts of Valor for specific combat veterans, all who attended the presentation.
Mathews told the veterans, "These are comforting quilts to thank you for your service. Any day is Veterans Day to us. You are not forgotten. You are always remembered for signing a blank check to willingly sacrifice your life for our freedoms. Our goal is to get you covered with a quilt, a tangible sign of our gratitude for your service."
The first quilt presented went to Bill "Sweet William" Amberson, a 92-year-old World War II veteran who owns Amberson's family store in Boaz. The quilt, which featured red and blue squares on a white background with a stars and stripes border, was made by quilter Jane Bynum, who has shopped at Amberson's store.
"I found out he had never gotten a Quilt of Valor, so I wanted the honor of making him one," Bynum said.
Bynum also machine quilted Amberson's quilt, as she has done with other Quilts of Valor that she has donated.
"I put my brother's initials somewhere in the quilting on each quilt," she said. "My brother, Billy Bolton, was killed in Vietnam in 1968, and his initials are BCB. I do this to honor him. I machine quilted all three quilts presented today and each has got his initials in it."
In Amberson's quilt, she also quilted the words, "In valor there is hope," a saying she heard in an old war movie. "When I heard those words, they sent chills in me. I knew I had to add them," she said.
After showing the quilt to Amberson, Mathews and Bynum wrapped it around his shoulders. It was given to Amberson with a kiss on the cheek from Bynum.
"The wrapping of the quilt is to signify the wrapping of our arms around you," Mathews said. "When you wrap it around yourself, please know people care and appreciate you."
Amberson, who was accompanied by his wife Zadie and daughter-in-law Virginia, said he enjoyed receiving the quilt and the kiss.
"I love people. I love being around people and aggravating people. I enjoy life," he said.
He still carries with him the wounds of a war long ago. As an infantryman fighting in Europe on the edge of Germany, an artillery shell hit him, sending shrapnel through his shoulder and back, permanently severing the main nerve to his arms.
"All through France and Normandy and Belgium, I was following orders and trying not to get shot. I still remember the horror of Oct. 13, 1944. I wanted to live because I was going to turn 21 a few days later," he recalled.
"I had surgery and I went home in 1946. It took years to get over the injury. But I finally taught myself to play golf."
The next presentation went to Vietnam veteran Lance Wilson of Guntersville, who received a quilt designed in today's modern quilt look with red stripes, blue pinwheels and a red star border. The quilt was made by his wife, Nancy.
"The first thing I like to say to Vietnam veterans is 'Welcome Home,'" Mathews told Wilson as she gave him the quilt. "Thank you so much for your service."
Later, Wilson said he was honored to be part of the ceremony. "No one has ever honored the Vietnam veterans that much," he said. "It's the forgotten war. I think it should be done a lot more."
Wilson was a sailor who served on ships for two years in support of the Vietnam War.
"My brother had three tours in Vietnam. He has fought a lot of demons for a lot of years because of what he went through. A lot of others are also fighting their demons. It was a really tough war. I was fortunate to come back in one piece," he said. "It changes your whole life."
Recognizing selfless service
The third quilt was presented to retired veteran Edward Erb of Huntsville, who served as an Army Ranger from 1975 to 1996, and then went on to deploy four times to Operation Iraqi Freedom as a contractor to install surveillance systems at Army posts and forward operating bases. His quilt was made by Lynn Hale, who bordered four large village scenes with red, white, blue and green borders. Hale became connected to Erb through a friend who knew Erb's wife, Bernice.
"I think it's a beautiful quilt. You can see the caring and love that went into everything from the design and the making," he said. "It's fabulous."
Erb's wife tricked him into attending the quilt show. The quilt presentation came as a total surprise to him.
"This all started when my friend showed me this quilt and I said, 'I wish my husband had one like it because he's a combat veteran,'" Erb's wife recalled.
The quilt is an original design by Hale.
"It was a challenge to our guild members to make a Quilt of Valor," Hale said.
"When I was making it, I prayed over all of the sewing and the choosing of the fabric. I prayed that the veteran who got it would really like it."
To Erb, the quilt means more because it was made by a quilter who has no military background.
"Anything from outside the military where a civilian wants to understand and recognize what veterans have gone through, and they recognize the selfless service, that's just wonderful," he said.
It's those connections between the veteran and the civilian quilter that Mathews hopes to create throughout the state. She works to encourage connections by sharing the story of Quilts of Valor with quilt guilds and other groups.
"If I could get each quilt guild in the state to commit to making two to five quilts a year, we could meet the demand in our state. I have the recipients, I need the quilters," she said.
"It's making those connections, building those bridges, that happen when the quilter can meet the veteran she or he has made the quilt for. For that reason, I try to make sure my quilters are present when we wrap a veteran with the quilt they made."
Need for quilts
That need for quilt donations is even more intense going into 2015 because Mathews hopes to present 150 Quilts of Valor to the veterans of the Floyd E. "Tut" Fann State Veterans Home in July when it celebrates its 20th anniversary.
There are standards that all Quilts of Valor must meet. They must be a generous lap-sized quilt (minimum of 55 inches by 65 inches) made with quality fabrics, and machine or hand quilted. They must include a Quilts of Valor label that includes the name(s) of the quilter, and a blank space for the name of the recipient. Each quilt should be accompanied by a note from the maker to the recipient and be presented in a coordinating pillowcase or bag.
Mathews, who now lives in Birmingham, began quilting about six years ago. After making quilts for her three daughters and nine grandchildren, she committed to making Quilts of Valor and to recruiting other quilters for the effort.
"All of our quilts are 100 percent volunteer quilts. The quilter volunteers their time, their talent, their fabric and their quilting," Mathews said. "These quilters are so very special because they make quilts to comfort our service members."
Among her responsibilities as Alabama's Quilts of Valor regional coordinator is to attend the annual Quilts of Valor leader conferences. In 2013, the conference was in Nebraska City, Oklahoma, a state that Mathews remembers fondly as she was born there when her father was stationed at Fort Sill.
"One of my dad's students actually found me there and introduced himself. He said he remembered my dad. He said what my dad taught him about being a Soldier actually saved his life," Mathews recalled.
"To me, that was my sign that I am doing what I'm supposed to be doing."
Editor's note: For more information about Quilts of Valor, visit its website at www.QOVF.org. Quilters who want to volunteer can email firstname.lastname@example.org.