By Air Force Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Matwey
Special to American Forces Press Service
Aug. 17, 2009 - In 2003, Catherine Roberts, a midwife and a 25-year quilter from Seaford, Del., wanted to give a wounded soldier a quilt to bring him comfort during his recovery. "We are a nation at war," Roberts said. "Warriors need something tangible, a physical representation of love, support and remembrance."
That simple idea drove 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," Roberts said.
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," Roberts said, because his wife Connie also was a quilter.
Kallerson accepted the first quilt for a wounded soldier and "opened the doors at Walter Reed for our Quilts of Valor," Roberts said.
Initially named Quilts for Soldiers, she quickly changed the name to Quilts of Valor to embrace all branches of the armed forces. Roberts built a Web site to connect quilters, and developed a system to find recipients at dozens of medical facilities and put 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, Roberts soon had a modern, nationwide supply and distribution network for the foundation.
The foundation's Web site 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."
The foundation intended to award quilts to each U.S. servicemember wounded physically or psychologically by service in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the mission since has expanded to include all U.S. servicemembers and veterans from all conflicts affected by war.
To accomplish the foundation's mission, 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.
Quilts were soon on their way beyond Walter Reed to every military medical center in the United States and to several in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Veterans Affairs medical centers, U.S. and overseas military bases, two U.S. military service academies and Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va.
The quilts also appeared aboard military transports flying troops from the combat theater to stateside, in airport USO lounges, Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion posts, churches, schools, shopping mall parking lots and private homes.
Since that first quilt, 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 New York once travelled to Walter Reed to deliver quilts the children helped make.
According to the foundation, to date, more than 23,000 active-duty, Reserve and National Guard troops have received quilts, the majority for soldiers, followed by Marines, airmen, sailors and Coast Guard members.
"Our servicemembers have been touched by war, and now it is time for them to be touched by our comforting and healing wartime quilts," Roberts said. "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 Roberts continued efforts to support troops during wartime, she became aware of the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center here. She learned how the center's 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 handle the dignified transfers of fallen servicemembers, 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 more than five years, with previous tours of duty dating back to 1980. The impact of the quilts has been "huge, just huge," Sparks said.
"My first day and week was really hard at [the center]," Sparks said. 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," he said.
"I feel that someone was thinking about me when they built this [quilt]," he continued. "When I put this quilt around my shoulders, I feel the loving arms of this country and the quilters who made it."
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 quilts went to 1,352 Marines at the 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment at Camp Lejeune, who had just returned home after a seven-month rotation to southern Afghanistan.
Roberts is intimately familiar with wartime military service. When she began Quilts of Valor, her son was preparing to go to Iraq with an Army military police unit. He completed a one-year deployment, and was awarded 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.
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.
Reflecting on the many troops and their families she has met across the nation, 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."
(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Benjamin Matwey serves in the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center public affairs office.)