Peace by Piece
There’s no doubt that military service can be challenging. The high incidence of post-traumatic stress and the staggering number of veteran suicides only proves the point. But one woman’s idea of supporting service members and veterans has grown to a nationwide effort to “cover service members and veterans touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor®.”
The Quilts of Valor Foundation (QOVF), a non-profit organization based in Winterset, Iowa, literally began with a dream. According to the QOVF website, founder Catherine Roberts had a vivid dream that became the inspiration for this all-volunteer initiative.
While her son Nathanial was deployed to Iraq in 2003, she dreamed of “a young man sitting on the side of his bed in the middle of the night, hunched over. The permeating feeling was one of utter despair. I could see his war demons clustered around, dragging him down into an emotional gutter. Then, as if viewing a movie, I saw him in the next scene in a quilt. His whole demeanor changed from one of despair to one of hope and wellbeing. The quilt had made this dramatic change.”
As a quilter herself, the message was clear to her: Quilts could help heal invisible wounds by offering gratitude and comfort. She envisioned these “Quilts of Valor” as tangible reminders of our nation’s appreciation and gratitude, and a way of connecting the homefront with our warriors and veterans.
Roberts began developing the model for this non-profit organization that would involve teams of volunteers who would donate their time and materials to create a quilt that would be presented to one of these heroes. And though the concept was simple, implementing it would require coordination and participation with a large grassroots network of quilters and others.
Roberts hit on the idea of linking a “quilt-topper,” a person who pieces the top of the quilt from various fabrics, with a “longarmer, a quilter who uses a longarm quilting machine (designed to stitch large textile projects) to mesh the quilt top, the fluffy batting in the middle and the backing fabric into a unique work of textile art. The objective is that Quilts of Valor (QOV) will be stitched with love, prayers and healing thoughts, and that they will be seen as tangible tokens of appreciation that unequivocally say, “Thank you for your service, sacrifice and valor.”
Roberts’ vision was that a Quilt of Valor would be a quality quilt, “not a charity quilt.” It would be the civilian equivalent of a Purple Heart and would be quilted, not tied. They would be “awarded, not passed out like magazines or videos.”
Standards of Excellence
To meet this requirement, the QOVF has established standards of excellence (available at www.qovf.org) that must be met before a quilt can be presented as a Quilt of Valor. The quilts must be a “generous lap-sized quilt” with minimum finished dimensions of 55 x 65 inches. The fabrics used must be of high quality cotton and be hand- or machine-quilted with care. And although there are no prescribed patterns that quilt-toppers must use, there is a preferred color palette.
“We prefer the quilts be done in patriotic colors,” explains Ann Rehbein, executive director for the QOVF, “but quilters can use any pattern they like. If a quilt is being made for an individual, other colors might be acceptable, but we’ve found that most veterans prefer their QOV be centered on a red, white and blue theme rather than their personal favorite colors. And while we prefer patriotic colors, we do not want quilts that replicate the U.S. flag.”
Once the top is pieced together, it and the backing fabric (which must be eight inches longer and wider than the top) are sent to a longarmer for assembly into a finished quilt. The longarmers provide the low-loft batting that goes between the top and the backing, and stitch the three layers together in a pattern that is appropriate to the quilt top. Longarmers are asked to finish the quilt within 30 days, using balanced thread tension and uniform stitches of between eight and 12 stitches per inch.
Rehbein says almost all QOVs are machine-pieced and machine-quilted. “If an individual is making a QOV for someone they know personally, they may elect to hand-quilt it, but those are quite rare. Regardless of the recipient, the key ingredient is love.”
Volunteers Make it Work
Coordinating this process with thousands of volunteers scattered across the country is no small feat. The QOVF has a dedicated network of state coordinators who orchestrate the efforts of quilting clubs and individual quilters in their geographic area. According to Rehbein, these state coordinators ask folks to make the quilt tops when requests for QOVs come in. (A list of state coordinators is available at www.qovf.org)
QOVF also has a longarm coordinator who matches quilt-toppers with longarm volunteers. When a top is complete, the quilttopper can go to the QOVF website and request a longarmer. Once a longarmer has been designated, the quilt top and backing are sent for the final assembly.
“One important facet of a Quilt of Valor,” explains Rehbein, “is the label that’s on the back of each one. The label can include the name of everyone who was involved in the quilt’s creation – the topper, longarmer, a quilting club – and also the recipient’s name, service date or other pertinent information. “
It’s not clear exactly how many volunteers are supporting the QOV movement, but there’s no doubt it’s catching on. QOVF officially became a non-profit organization in 2005. By 2012, the group was presenting more than 6,000 Quilts of Valor per year. “In 2015, we presented 18,772! We’ve tripled the number of quilts we’ve given in just three years,” says Rehbein proudly. “We’ve recently started a membership initiative to get a better idea of exactly how many volunteers we have, but we know our numbers aren’t complete. We currently have more than 5,000 registered members, but we believe we have a lot more volunteers who are not registered.”
Requesting a Quilt of Valor
If you know someone who meets the qualifications to receive a QOV, you can nominate him/her using an online form (www.qovf.org). You can nominate an individual, a group or even yourself. The form includes a field where nominators can share particular circumstances about the recipient, such as he/she is currently deployed, in hospice care or if the presentation is intended to be a surprise. Once a request is received, the process begins of creating the quilt and a QOVF volunteer will contact the nominator to set up a time and place for presenting the quilt.
“We’re able to manage virtually all requests for quilts, but there’s sometimes a bit of a waiting period,” explains Rehbein. “It can take up to six months for a recipient to receive their QOV.”
Rehbein wants to be sure that FRA members understand they are likely eligible for a QOV, particularly those who served during the past and current conflicts. “If they haven’t already received a QOV, virtually all FRA shipmates are eligible to receive one. Our mission statement says that recipients are those who’ve been ‘touched by war.’ There is a difference of opinions about what that means exactly, but in my opinion, it’s hard to imagine anyone raising their hands to serve in the military who hasn’t been touched by war.”
Awarding the Quilts
Once a completed quilt has been quilted, bound, washed, labeled and wrapped in a presentation case, it is ready to be awarded. Quilts of Valor are presented with a certificate and can be awarded in a variety of ways. They may go to military hospitals, where chaplains award them to recovering service members. Sometimes entire units are recognized as they return from deployments or they may be awarded individually. FRA branch meetings have also been the stage for presentations, including those awarded at Branch 63 (Lewiston, Idaho) and Branch 294 (Crossville, Tennessee) (see photos below).
But no matter how a Quilt of Valor is awarded, the impact it delivers is unequivocal. There are numerous quotes on the foundation’s website from grateful QOV honorees. One recipient said, “My quilt isn’t another military medal to be placed in a box and sit on my shelf. I was moved to tears.”
Another spoke of his severe injuries in Iraq and how the QOV made by a fifth grade class in Colorado lifted his spirits. “After the shell shock, trauma and intense pain, as well as numerous surgeries, your quilt was just the thing I needed … I can feel the love from each one of you. “
Dorsey Winfree, from Quincy, Wash., describes his difficult transition to civilian life and the “deep, dark depression” he endured after returning to the U.S. after serving and being wounded during the Vietnam conflict. Even after nearly 40 years, he says he thinks of his Vietnam experience every day. He was both moved and surprised to receive a Quilt of Valor. In a video interview (at www.qovf.org), he thanks his family for being supportive and respectful of his service, but says the public has never acknowledged it. His QOV is “by far, the best event anyone’s done for me … ever … as a veteran. It means everything to me.”
Involvement Takes Many Forms
Ann Rehbein had an interest in quilting, but not a lot of experience, when she first heard about the Quilts of Valor program. “I was a member of the American Legion Auxiliary and was looking for a state project that everyone could be involved in. I chose QOV because it could involve lots of folks. Even if you aren’t an experienced quilter, you can cut pieces, press seams, make sandwiches, run errands or even make a donation to the cause. There are so many ways to be involved.”
That decision led her to meet quilting celebrity and QOVF board member Marianne Fons. “Marianne hosts a quilting show on PBS and only lives about 30 miles from here. I invited her to come to one of our meetings and talk about quilting and we became friends. She references QOV on her show and, about once a year, she does a whole episode on a QOV story. There is also a magazine, Fons and Porter’s Love of Quilting, associated with the show and they publish a pattern that’s suitable for a QOV in each issue.” And that friendship led Rehbein to become more involved with the QOV effort and eventually to her appointment as QOVF executive director.
“It’s a labor of love,” adds Rehbein. “I’m honored to serve as the director of QOVF and proud of our all-volunteer force. The only paid employee of the foundation is our bookkeeper, who we only recently hired. All the rest of our work is done solely by volunteers, donating their time and resources to honor our troops and veterans.”
As of February 8, 2016, the QOVF has presented 133,131 quilts. Rehbein estimates that an average quilt takes about 20 hours to create and includes approximately $250 in materials. It doesn’t take a genius to do the math. In its 11 years of existence, 2,662,620 man-hours and more than $33.2 million in materials have been contributed to creating and presenting Quilts of Valor.
Not For Women Only
Sewing and quilting have traditionally been female pursuits, but Rehbein makes it clear the QOV program isn’t just for women. “Our quilttoppers and longarmers are predominantly women, but we do have a few males who work on constructing and longarming quilts. But you don’t have to be a quilter or even run a sewing machine to support the QOVF mission,” she reiterates. “Anyone can cut fabric, press seams, organize presentation events, provide refreshments, write press releases, share the QOVF message with others in your community, serve on the QOVF staff and a thousand other activities that go into making and awarding a QOV. If someone wants to support the QOVF, financial donations also advance our work. Donors can contribute online at www.qovf.org or they can send a check to us at QOVF, PO Box 191, Winterset, IA 50273.”
Group involvement is also encouraged. Sharon Ledbetter, a QOV group leader in Idaho, works closely with veterans groups in her area, including FRA Branch 63 (Lewiston, Idaho). A QOV volunteer since 2005, when the organization was known as Quilts for Soldiers, Ledbetter has held various positions within the organization and enjoys coordinating group participation in the QOV movement.
“I learned about QOV when I attended a ladies’ sew day, where a friend was making a patriotic quilt,” explains Ledbetter. “I liked the concept and in 2009 I formed the Lewis Clark QOV group, which drew 36 quilters on our opening day. Quilters came from Grangeville to Pomeroy and we generated 110 Quilts of Valor. My personal involvement has expanded from there and I served a two-year term as the assistant executive director (2013–2015).”
Her involvement with area veterans’ groups began in 2010, when her QOV group awarded 16 Quilts of Valor to a group of Vietnam veterans. Marine Corps veteran Ron Gray was among the recipients and “he’s been instrumental in helping me locate recipients and ‘bringing me into the fold’ with all our area veterans. We continue to keep in close contact with all our local veterans’ groups, including FRA. We don’t keep track of names and total numbers, but I estimate our group has provided about 2,000 QOVs since we formed in 2009. Without the support of our local veterans’ community, we would not be in a position to provide the number of quilts that we have. We look forward to working with groups like FRA in the future.
“The bulk of these groups’ support is financial,” she continues. “If the many QOV groups nationwide are to continue our mission, financial support is critical. The donations may be used to purchase fabric to build quilt kits, batting and backing for the quilts and to pay postage. The costs to ship our tops and backs to a longarmer, and then the costs for the longarmer to return the completed, quilt add up quickly. We are not authorized to use the donations for any other purpose than quilt-making and postage, unless specifically requested by the donor.”
As an example of the partnership the Lewis Clark QOV group has forged with local veterans groups, they are co-hosting a traveling memorial to 22 Marines and one Navy corpsman who were killed in action in Iraq in 2005. The Lima Company Memorial “Eyes of Freedom” display (www.youtube.com/watch?v=1N36lmf3LWk) will be presented in Lewiston during Veterans Week of 2016.
The Lewis Clark QOV will be partnering with one of the local veterans groups to host the event, where portraits of the lost Lima Company members are displayed. “The partnership makes sense,” adds Ledbetter. “The goal of the Eyes of Freedom memorial is designed to comfort the families of the fallen and ensure those lost service members are not forgotten. The QOVF mission is to comfort and honor those touched by war with healing Quilts of Valor. We will complement the EOF, as will they complement us. We will have QOVs on display during the event and at the end … Veterans Day … those quilts will come down and be awarded.”
Making a Difference
National service begins at home and the Quilts of Valor Foundation’s efforts truly bring the homefront to those who serve. QOVF founder Catherine Roberts invites everyone to use their talents and resources to honor and comfort those touched by war.
“The most common response we hear from our QOV recipients is, ‘I didn’t know anyone cared.’ I invite you to show these brave young men and women how much we appreciate their sacrifice and service with something very American and very tangible: a Quilt of Valor. If you want to do more than talk about supporting our troops, I invite you to [support the Quilts of Valor mission], which DOES make a difference in the road to recovery for our servicemembers.”
History of the Quilts of Valor Foundation
The First Quilt of Valor
The first QOV was awarded in November 2003 at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC) to a young soldier from Minnesota who had lost his leg in Iraq. QOVF founder Catherine Roberts recalls:
Chaplain John Kallerson opened the door for us at Walter Reed primarily because his wife Connie Kallerson happened to be a quilter. She impressed upon him how comforting quilts can be. John also saw the value of awarding quilts to his wounded because of the message they carried that someone cares.
Our Mission Statement
The organization’s original mission statement said its purpose was “to cover all those service members and veterans wounded physically or psychologically with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor.” Catherine Roberts recalls:
No one really liked the word “psychologically.” Brilliantly, Chaplain Kallerson suggested using the phrase “touched by war” as a replacement. The group’s mission statement was revised to read: “The mission of the Quilts of Valor Foundation is to cover all combat service members and veterans touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor.” Later, the words “all” and “combat” were removed, further reflecting our understanding of the true meaning “touched by war.”
The Light of Inclusion
In the early days of the organization, the primary focus was on awarding quilts to service members wounded in the Iraq (OIF) and Afghanistan (OEF) conflicts. Catherine Roberts remembers:
I affectionately referred to these young men as “babies” to distinguish them from veterans of other conflicts. Among us civilians, there were no complaints, as we were in the throes of an ongoing war. However, there were faint rumblings from those who worked at Veterans Administration Medical Centers (VAMCs). They politely pointed out it wasn’t fair to award a QOV to one group of wounded and exclude others. The light of inclusiveness began to glimmer.
At an awards ceremony at a VAMC in White River Junction, Vt., in 2006, we saw wounded veterans from all conflicts being awarded quilts, not our policy at the time. My husband Chris “got it” right away, but it took several years for me to really understand. That happened in 2009 in Bellingham, Wash. A group of us got together for a quilting retreat. One of our activities for the weekend was to award quilts at an event called “American Veterans Tribute and Traveling Wall Exhibit” in Bellingham. I could not find a group of OIF/OEF veterans for the QOVs we brought that day. A group of Vietnam veterans were there to perform a “Patriot Guard” ride past the Vietnam traveling memorial wall on their motorcycles. This event changed my whole outlook on who should receive a Quilt of Valor. As we were awarding quilts, the Vietnam vets said over and over again, “Ma’am, this is the first time in 40 years anyone has ever thanked me for my service.” All of us were thunderstruck. From then on, any warrior who had been touched by war, no matter when his or her service, could receive a Quilt of Valor. No questions asked.
The philosophy of inclusion widened when Catherine became aware of the work that goes on at Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations (AFMAO), located at Dover Air Force Base, Del. She recalls:
I read an essay by Marine Lt. Col. Michael Strobl called “Taking Chance Home.” In the essay, Strobl recounts how he escorted the body of Marine Private Chance Phillips to his home in Wyoming for burial. Strobl took the reader through AFMAO, describing who the staff was and what they did to prepare the remains of the fallen for burial. I realized that workers at Dover, though they were stateside, were as touched by war as anyone downrange or “in theater.”
We established a relationship with the AFMAO and set a date for an awards ceremony. The day of the ceremony I received a call from the chaplain saying we had a big problem — some of the staff at Dover were civilians. As they all worked as a team, awarding Quilts of Valor only to military service members would not work. The decision was made to award quilts to all working at the Port Mortuary, and this policy has continued ever since.
The Evolution of the Foundation’s Name
The first name of the organization was Quilts for Soldiers. Catherine Roberts explains:
Because my son was in the Army, I thought all military service members were “soldiers.” I didn’t understand that different branches have different names for their members. Fortunately, a Marine straightened me out, and Quilts for Soldiers became Quilts of Valor.
The Foundation’s Early Days
Catherine Roberts reminisces:
In the beginning, it was like the “wild, wild West.” A few of us handled everything. After we became a national non-profit in 2005, we created a volunteer board of directors to govern, determining policies and direction. Over the years, a structure of volunteer leadership has evolved.
Without the selflessness of the individuals who have volunteered over the years and who work tirelessly for the foundation now, we would not be the viable group we are today. It’s difficult for me to convey to those who may be reading this history the debt I owe these individuals. They have devoted their time, their hearts and their financial resources to the Foundation to keep it afloat, growing and thriving. I know that, many times, many volunteers have felt it was a thankless job, but they have given their service, their sacrifice and sometimes their valor in service to our mission. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Without you, we would not be here today.
Lauren Armstrong is the Contributing Editor and Member of the FRA Auxiliary. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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