By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneDecember 16, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- A reminder of two local heroes will be arriving in Huntsville Dec. 18.
As little boys, Huntsville was their home. As grown men, they put on the uniform and defended freedom, making the world their home.
As war fighters, each led a destiny that took them to Iraq and placed them among the more than 4,200 servicemembers who have made the ultimate sacrifice in Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom-Afghanistan.
But these two Soldiers -- Maj. William Hecker and Spc. Andrew Chris -- will be returning to Huntsville in a one-of-a-kind presentation that speaks to who they were, first, as young boys, and, second, as heroes to their families and the nation. They will be returning in a nationally recognized work of art known as the Lost Heroes Art Quilt.
"It's a very powerful work of art," said Hecker's mother, Nancy, who now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo., but who still has many friends in Huntsville. "There is so much thought and symbolism that went into this quilt.
"The quilt is meant to educate the public about the price of freedom and about the sacrifices being made on the behalf of all Americans. It shows the character and dedication of people in the military. The quilt is a work of art that educates people about loss and remembrance."
For Chris' mom, Cheryl Chris, the quilt is a must-see, personal experience.
"This quilt is absolutely amazing," she said. "The pictures of it don't do it justice. When you see it in person, you can see all the symbolism and all the love. You think about this boy who grew up to serve his country and the family that still loves him."
The quilt, designed by artist Julie Feingold, honors one servicemember from each of the 50 states who was killed in military operations since 9/11. It was dedicated at the Weekend of Remembrance in Washington, D.C., in September 2009, and displayed on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol and at the Arlington National Cemetery Visitors Center. Since then, it has been displayed at museums and state capitol buildings throughout the nation.
Beginning Saturday, Dec. 18, the Lost Heroes Art Quilt will be on display at the Huntsville Botanical Garden. The display will be open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through Jan. 2. As a companion piece to the quilt, the Heritage Quilters of Huntsville will sponsor a patriotic quilt exhibit. Admission to the exhibit is free to active and retired military and their families.
This will be the quilt's second appearance in Alabama. It began its national tour at the state's capitol, making Alabama the first state to host the quilt.
"Alabama set the tone for other states," said Nancy Hecker, who coordinates the quilt's travels around the country.
On the quilt, Nancy Hecker's son represents the state of Missouri, although he grew up in a military family that lived in Huntsville three different times (and another time later after his father retired) while his father worked in missile defense. A West Point graduate, Hecker attended Randolph School in kindergarten and first grade, and in eighth and ninth grades, and made Eagle Scout in Huntsville. While at West Point, Hecker was stationed at Redstone. His younger brother John attended Auburn University, and is now a member of the Blue Angels Flight Team.
Hecker, 37, married and the father of four young children, was among five Soldiers killed on Jan. 5, 2006, when an improvised explosive device detonated near his Humvee during convoy operations in Najah, south of Baghdad. He was assigned to the 3rd Battalion, 16th Field Artillery, 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, Fort Hood, Texas. One of the Soldiers who was killed with him - Capt. Christopher Petty - represents Virginia on the quilt.
Cheryl Chris' son, who attended Chapman Elementary School before his family moved to Florence, is Alabama's representative. He was the 298th servicemember killed in the war, and the first from Alabama. He still has lots of relatives in Huntsville and a brother who lives in Sheffield and works on Redstone Arsenal.
Chris, 25, was mortally wounded on June 25, 2003, in Iraq in combat operations in hostile enemy territory. He was assigned to Company B, 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Fort Benning, Ga.
In addition, a number of the heroes represented on the quilt were Army aviators who spent time in Alabama, including Keith Yoakum, Cornell Chao and Mark Resh.
"It's not easy. We all still cry," Nancy Hecker said.
"But this quilt is so phenomenal ... The artist wanted to know who are these young men and women who served in the military and put their life on the line of us. She wanted to explain who they are in a work of art."
The artist also knew she couldn't include all 4,000-plus heroes in a quilt. She decided that one hero from each state would be a symbolic representative of all the fallen heroes from each state.
"Then she chose how to represent them on the quilt. She wanted to show them as real people with hopes and dreams and families who love them," Nancy Hecker said. "She chose to use a picture of them when they were children, and to have each square tell the story of that Soldier's life. It shows they were somebody's child. It shows that the loss of a child is the same no matter what their age or their rank."
Cheryl Chris is glad that the artist chose to display the young pictures of the loved ones the quilt honors "because it drives home the meaning of the quilt so much more. These were our babies, even if they were adults and all grown up when they were killed. They have moms and dads and brothers and sisters who will always remember them. We always remember these fallen heroes as our babies. This quilt expresses how I feel when I think about my son."
Feingold contacted the American Gold Star Mothers Organization in search of families that would volunteer their loved one for the quilt. She asked each family to provide a photo of their fallen hero as a child and then as an adult in uniform, and she asked them to write a story about their hero.
"We received so much support and so many wonderful gifts when Andrew died," Cheryl Chris said. "The quilt was in the conceptual phase when I was asked if I would be interested in participating. This was a way for me to thank people for their support of us and to talk about some of my favorite memories of him."
Feingold used G.I. Joe vintage fabrics - symbolic of the G.I. Joe's many of the quilt's little boys played with - and ensconced each Soldier's little boy face inside the top of a G.I. Joe jacket. If a Marine, the hero is in a camouflage jacket, Army heroes are in green, Navy in sailor tops, and Air Force in tan. She took key words from the stories that described the loved one and silk screened them onto each square.
Hecker's quilt square includes the words "West Point," "thoughtful scholar," "Army brat," St. Louis Cardinals," "baseball" and "loved good literature, good wine and good coffee."
Chris's quilt square includes the words "loved WWII history," "Airborne Army Ranger," "The Protector," "quiet young man," and "connected with children and animals." Since the quilt squares are organized alphabetically, Chris's quilt square is what many people first see when they look at the quilt.
"This quilt really personalizes what has happened to our Soldiers," said Cheryl Chris, who now lives in Louisiana and hopes to visit the quilt when it is in Huntsville. "Maybe this war hasn't touched some people personally. But, it's important to me for people to know the price they paid and the price their families paid. It doesn't go away. It's with you for the rest of your life. We don't want them to be forgotten."
The quilt ended up with 82 servicemembers - 50 in the center representing 50 states and another 32 on the borders. The words "Without A Witness, They Will Disappear" are centered at the top of the quilt.
Feingold's definition of a hero for the quilt is "someone who would put their life on the line for a cause greater than themselves," a definition that encompasses all that serve their nation in the armed forces. Because the selection of the heroes was completely random, the quilt reflects the diversity of America and of those who serve in the military. There are two Native Americans represented on the quilt, one from New Mexico and one from North Dakota. There are two females, three African-Americans, several with Hispanic backgrounds and even a Pakistani immigrant. The heroes on the quilt come from all ranks and education levels, and from many different cultural backgrounds. But the one theme that comes through loud and clear when you read their stories, is that they all shared a love of country and were dedicated to serve.
On the quilt, just under the bottom row of the heroes, Feingold has silk screened the words to the third stanza of America the Beautiful ... "Oh beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife, who more than self their country loved and mercy more than life!"
"I can't thread a needle and have no interest in quilting. But I have an appreciation for quilts and their ability to tell a story," Nancy Hecker said. "This quilt is an extraordinary work of art."
The quilt comes with a companion book, "The Lost Heroes Art Quilt, An Artist's Tribute to America's Heroes" that Nancy Hecker compiled from the stories the families submitted for their loved one and including pictures of the loved one as a child and an adult. Proceeds from the book are donated to Snowball Express, an organization that helps the children of the fallen by taking them on a fun holiday trip each year.
"We needed to have a book or catalog to go with the quilt, and I thought maybe I could do it," Nancy Hecker said. "When you are going through the grieving process, as time passes, you want to do something proactive that helps you to heal. This was it for me.
"The quilt has, hopefully, done that for all the families involved in this project. It was such a warm and wonderful experience to be involved in this."
On Veterans Day 2011, the quilt will be auctioned at the CAUSE wounded warrior gala in Washington, D.C., with proceeds going to Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors.
Editor's note: For more information about the Lost Heroes Art Quilt, visit its website at www.lostheroesartquilt.org.