DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. —
In 2003 Catherine Roberts, a midwife by profession and quilter for 25 years from Seaford, wanted to give a wounded soldier a quilt to bring him comfort during his recovery.
"We are a nation at war," said Ms. Roberts. "Warriors need something tangible, a physical representation of love, support and remembrance."
That simple idea drove Ms. Roberts to start the nonprofit Quilts of Valor Foundation, chartered in Delaware. The project, now six years strong, has awarded tens of thousands of handmade quilts to American troops.
"Once I got the first quilt done, I had to find a wounded recipient," said Ms. Roberts.
The first quilt went to a soldier at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. A web search put her in touch with Army Chaplain John L. Kallerson, who "knew the power of the quilt," because his wife Connie was also a quilter. Chaplain Kallerson accepted the first quilt for a wounded soldier and "opened the doors at Walter Reed for our Quilts of Valor," said Ms. Roberts.
At the same time, Ms. Roberts checked to see if there were any organized efforts to provide quilts to wounded warriors. Her research found none anywhere in the nation, so she moved forward to develop the Foundation.
Initially named Quilts for Soldiers, she quickly changed the name to Quilts of Valor to embrace all branches of the armed forces. Ms. Roberts built a website (http://www.QOVF.org
) to connect quilters, and developed a system to find recipients at dozens of medical facilities and get the quilts into the hands of troops. Marrying quilting groups - a form of face-to-face social networking in place since before the Civil War - with the power of the internet, Ms. Roberts soon had a modern nationwide supply and distribution network for the Foundation.
The Foundation website describes the essence of the organization: "A Quilt of Valor is a wartime quilt, made to honor those touched by war. This foundation is not about politics. It is about people."
From 2003 to 2009, the Foundation intended to award quilts to each U.S. servicemember wounded physically or psychologically by service in Iraq and Afghanistan. The mission has expanded to include all U.S. servicemembers and veterans from all conflicts affected by war.
In order to accomplish the Foundation's mission Ms. Roberts reached out to the U.S. quilting community, estimated to be as large as 27 million people, with a simple message -- she asked them to volunteer their time to make custom quilts to award to the nation's troops.
Read more: Quilters Behind the Scenes
Read more: The Quilt-Making Process
Quilts were soon on their way beyond Walter Reed -- to every military medical center in the U.S. and to several in Iraq and Afghanistan, V.A. Medical Centers, U.S. and overseas military bases, two U.S. military service academies and Arlington National Cemetery. QOV awards also occurred aboard military transports flying troops from the combat theater to the U.S., in airport U.S.O. lounges, V.F.W. and American Legion posts, churches, schools, shopping mall parking lots and private homes.
Since that first quilt, Ms. Roberts has made about 10 visits to Walter Reed where chaplains and Red Cross members assist in awarding hundreds of quilts. A kindergarten class from N.Y. once travelled to Walter Reed with their parents aboard a bus to deliver quilts the children helped make.
To date, well over 23,000 active duty, reserve and National Guard troops have been awarded Quilts of Valor; the majority for Army Soldiers, followed by Marines, Air Force Airmen, Navy Sailors and Coast Guard Coasties.
"Our servicemembers have been touched by war and now it is time for them to be touched by our comforting and healing wartime quilts," said Ms. Roberts. "What makes the Quilt of Valor stand out is that this wartime quilt says without equivocation or hesitancy, 'thank you for your service, sacrifice and valor while standing in harm's way for our country'."
THOSE AFFECTED BY THE HUMAN COSTS OF WAR ALSO RECEIVE QUILTS
As Ms. Roberts continued efforts to support troops during wartime, she became aware of the Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base after reading about the center in Operation Homecoming
. The 2006 book, an initiative launched by the National Endowment for the Arts, is a collection of emails and letters from troops and their families to record their wartime experience. She learned how the nearly 100 center workers, most from the Air Force but with contingents from the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, felt the impact of war due to their mission. Unit members (reorganized in Dec. 2008 as the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center
) handle the dignified transfers of fallen service members (with most recent losses from warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan), communicate with grieving family members and prepare the fallen for return home. The Foundation awarded quilts to center workers in December 2006 and since then to nearly 300 people after every deployed rotation of civilians and troops.
Chaplain David Sparks has worked at the center for over five years, with previous tours of duty going back to 1980. The impact on the workers awarded the quilts has been "Huge, just huge," said Chaplain Sparks. "The quilt fits the wounds of the people here," said Chaplain Sparks, who relays how most people who initially begin work at AFMAO experience a sense of horror, and then the feelings transition to profound sadness.
"My first day and week was really hard at AFMAO," said Chaplain Sparks. Several weeks after he had received his quilt and after a particularly challenging day, something hit him. "I went home. I pulled this quilt around my shoulders. I felt love, care. Tears came down."
Chaplain Sparks put the quilts awarded by QOV into perspective, describing the personal quality that it has: "I feel that someone was thinking about me when they built this (quilt). When I put this quilt around my shoulders, I feel the loving arms of this country and the quilters who made it."
MEETING THE DEMAND FOR QUILTS OF VALOR
Ms. Roberts is aware that there is a ratio of about 10 wounded troops for every troop killed in warfare, meaning that there could be twice as many troops wounded in recent combat as the number of quilts awarded so far. Adding in veterans of the Vietnam War and other conflicts affected by war, and the number of people eligible for a QOV award grows significantly higher.
To meet this demand, the quilters behind the foundation press on, exemplifying the attitude expressed in the signature line in Ms. Roberts' emails and newsletter - 'Still at war - still quilting!'
In June, Quilts of Valor volunteers travelled over the roadways in a caravan from California to Camp Lejeune, N.C. awarding quilts at stops along the way. American Legion and Rolling Thunder motorcyclists accompanied them during several legs of the trip. The final awards were to 1,352 U.S. Marines at the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Camp Lejeune, who had just returned home after a seven-month rotation to southern Afghanistan supporting Operation Enduring Freedom. QOV members wrote daily blogs during the caravan, and news coverage of the ceremonies gave QOV more exposure.
Social media has also helped to spread the word about QOV, including videos uploaded to YouTube. One video is from Al Lind, a U.S. Army veteran of World War II and survivor of a German POW camp, who sits behind his sewing machine urging golfers to "get off their duffs" and make a quilt.
Ms. Roberts is intimately familiar with wartime military service because of her children. When she began Quilts of Valor, her son was preparing to go to Iraq in an Army military police unit. He completed a one-year deployment with a Purple Heart after sustaining shrapnel wounds. A daughter graduated as an ensign this spring from the U.S. Naval Academy, and begins sea duty this fall.
Ms. Roberts raves about the efforts of the patriotic quilters she knows from Delaware and whom she has met across the nation, the beautiful quilts they create, and the positive responses she witnesses at the award ceremonies. She keeps writing, phoning and organizing. "I am a doer," said Ms. Roberts, who is learning video techniques and other methods to enhance Foundation communication efforts.
In July, QOV quilters held a planning meeting in Washington State where Ms. Roberts moved with her husband last year. Together they brainstormed future Foundation activities, including the prospect of holding a national QOV day.
Ms. Roberts wants to enlist the help of others, including high-profile citizens and their families, to quilt and to spread the word about Quilts of Valor as a way to support more Americans affected by war.
The benefits of such support can run both ways.
In exchanges between quilters, troops and their families, said Ms. Roberts, each experience a range of emotions during and after QOV award ceremonies. She has observed sadness and silence from award recipients during ceremonies, sometimes with tears shared by the servicemember and others in the room. Servicemembers often say a few words about their wartime experiences, the loss of their unit brothers and sisters downrange or the impact on their families during deployments.
Many quilters later receive notes of appreciation from troops. There is, said Ms. Roberts, "healing not just for the warriors, but for us."
The most common statements made by QOV award recipients, said Ms. Roberts, are, "I don't deserve this. Give it to my buddy," or, "I was just doing my job," or, "I didn't think anyone cared."
From our Vietnam veterans Ms. Roberts often hears words such as, "This is the first time in 45 years that anyone has acknowledged my service to our country," or, "I didn't know how much I needed this."
Reflecting on the many troops and their families whom she has met across the nation, Ms. Roberts said, "When I go about my daily activities or travel the country, I sometimes wonder if we are acting like we are a country at war. I wonder if we truly appreciate the duty and hardships that servicemembers face while we are waging war."
To learn more about the Quilts of Valor Foundation, to read instructions on making a quilt, or to find quilting activities near your base or hometown, visit the Foundation website at http://www.QOVF.org