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Sunday, November 11, 2012

At American Hero Quilts, Every Day is Veterans Day

The year was 2003, not the 1960s, and the scenes were in Iraq, not Vietnam, but the same old feeling of extreme distress weighed heavily on Sue Nebeker's heart as she watched television news coverage of the U.S. invasion called Operation Iraqi Freedom. The "shock and awe" reached right into her living room.

"I was very concerned and upset," she told me. "Because of my age, I remember the Vietnam War and I remember the Vietnam vets coming home and the way they were treated." About the same time, she read a newspaper story about a veteran, only in his early 20s, who could not cope with life after what he had experienced, and killed himself.

"I wanted to do something," Nebeker said. That's when an idea came to her.

Nebeker is a Washington quilter who lives on Vashon Island in Puget Sound. She knows how a quilt can offer—in addition to physical warmth—the warmth of love, the softness of an embrace, and a sense of comfort and caring. Her distress led to action.

"My husband and I went out and bought lots and lots of fabric and talked neighbors into coming and helping to cut fabric," Nebeker recalled. "And my son, who's in advertising, made posters. I asked people to come to a 'sew-a-thon' to thank our wounded warriors."
And that's how, in 2004, a non-profit organization called American Hero Quilts came into existence.

"We're at 12,000 quilts," she said. "We never thought it would be that much."

Once the word got out, quilts began to arrive from all over the country. When I asked Nebeker where she stores them all, I was told that they go out just as fast as they come in. Each and every month, this grassroots organization sends from 125-150 quilts to Afghanistan, plus another 100 to Fort Lewis for the Warrior Transition Battalion, and also supplies them to several other military hospitals and rehab facilities.

In Afghanistan, quilts supplied by American Hero Quilts cover wounded soldiers on gurneys, to keep them warm as they wait on the runway to board Medevac aircraft and be flown to safety and help. It's a dangerous situation, as the larger planes make easy targets.

The quilts are made by both individuals and active groups of quilters who get together regularly to work for this cause. On Vashon Island, where American Hero Quilts is based, enthusiasts meet once a month at the local quilt shop, Island Quilter, to do anything that needs to be done.

Nebeker said, "They do make quilt tops, but for the most part they sew on bindings and labels for all the quilts that are coming in. Some of the quilts that come to us are just tops, and we send those to long arm quilters." By that she means, not quilters with long arms, but those who use the types of sewing machines called long arm quilting machines, made specifically to reach into the center of large quilts.

With the demand so great, help is always needed in the form of donations of pieced tops, volunteers to sew, quilt, and apply bindings, and cash. If you are interested in contributing in any way, you can learn how through this link, where you can also read about the standard requirements for the quilts, or donate through PayPal. All use patriotic colors and are made bed size, big enough to wrap around an adult. The organization does not distribute lap quilts.

All American Hero Quilts flow through the Vashon Island headquarters, for reasons of quality control and documentation. Nebeker said, "We have a label we put on the quilts that says, 'You are our hero. Thank you.' But sometime in the future, someone is going to ask, 'Who are the people who make American Hero Quilts? What are they doing, and what is it all about?'"

After a request from the
Washington State Library, she makes sure every quilt is photographed and all the information about it is preserved. Now, even far into the future, families will be able to research the quilt their loved one received.

Visable versus invisable wounds

American Hero Quilts does not forget those soldiers whose wounds can't be seen at a glance, the ones with brain injuries or
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, often called PTSD.

"They are as wounded as someone with a visible wound," Nebeker said, "so we make sure those folks are covered as well." Her organization also remembers the families who have lost beloved veterans to suicide. "That is a national shame and a national epidemic," she said. "There isn't a big recognition of their service to our country. So we make sure that we send a quilt to the family, and it state, 'With gratitude.'"

Sadly, there seems to be no end to Nebeker's work, even though it makes her happy to do it. Resigned to the inevitability of war and its consequences, she continues on.

"We want to give back to our warriors and thank them for their sacrifices," she said. "It's a way to give them a metaphoric hug. It's a way to comfort them, and it's a way for us to do something when we're at a loss as to what we can do."
Copyright 2012 Candace J. Brown

All photos are courtesy of American Hero Quilts
Please visit Good Life Northwest again for a related post about two wounded veterans walking many miles in the rain this weekend, to bring attention to PTSD and brain injuries. They left Bremerton this morning, on Veterans Day, traveled to the north end of Vashon Island, are walking the length of the island today, and will arrive in Tacoma via the Point Defiance ferry dock on Monday, Nov. 12. From there, they will again walk, all the way to Fort Lewis.
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1 comment:

islandquilter said...

Thank you so much for writing about this. The next AHQ sewing at Island Quilter is on November 30 at 10 am. For additional dates, please inquire at 206-713-6000.