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American Hero Quilts: Sewing for a cause

Sue Nebeker displays one of the project’s most special quilts, which will be given to the last wounded soldier returning from either Iraq or Afghanistan.   - Susan Riemer/staff photo
Sue Nebeker displays one of the project’s most special quilts, which will be given to the last wounded soldier returning from either Iraq or Afghanistan.
— image credit: Susan Riemer/staff photo

Who would have thought a homegrown effort to provide quilts to wounded U.S. troops would have come to this — a plea from an officer at a field hospital in Afghanistan for quilts for his injured soldiers?

Sue Nebeker delivered the first of her red, white and blue quilts — hand-stitched for Northwest soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan — five years ago. Last month, Lt. Col. Lee DePersia e-mailed her from Craig Joint Hospital at Bagram Field, Afghanistan, telling her the hospital was in short supply of blankets and coats; he had seen the Web site for her project, American Hero Quilts, he added, and wondered if she might be able to send quilts for the wounded men and women there.

Nebeker said yes.

In five short years, that’s the kind of success — bittersweet though it is — that Nebeker and the hundreds of volunteers who support her have achieved.

From a basement quilting studio in her Maury Island home, Nebeker, a retired social worker, has orchestrated a massive volunteer effort, delivering more than 6,000 quilts to wounded military personnel or their bereaved families since the Iraq war began in 2004 — handcrafted items meant, she said, as a symbol of the country’s respect and admira

tion for the sacrifices they’ve made.

Each month she and volunteers deliver 100 quilts to Madigan Army Medical Center and the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Lewis and send about 25 quilts to other treatment facilities. She has also sent nearly 350 “bereavement quilts” to families, mostly when they have had a loved one return home only to lose them to suicide.

It is an enormous task, evidenced by the floor-to-ceiling shelves chock full of red, white and blue fabric in her basement studio and the many stacks of neatly folded quilts, some waiting to be delivered, others waiting to be shipped to volunteers to work on further.

Sending these additional quilts to Afghanistan will increase the workload several times over, but Nebeker is undeterred.

The 30-bed field hospital treats wounded servicemen and women until they’re ready to be transferred to a military hospital in Germany. Nebeker told DePersia that she liked the idea of sending enough quilts so that each wounded soldier would receive one when he or she entered the Afghan hospital and could take it with them when they were transported to Germany.

“I wanted them to carry with them our gratitude and thanks,” Nebeker said.

That’s laudable, DePersia re-plied, but each month his hospital cares for 250 people, a number he expects will increase to 300 soon. He was hoping for 60 quilts, he said — 30 to cover people in their hospital beds or wheelchairs, while another 30 are being laundered.

Nebeker is setting out to meet his request, but she hopes she will eventually be able to send enough quilts to meet her original intent — a personal quilt for every injured person at the hospital. At the same time, she plans to continue to meet the needs here in the Northwest. But to do both, she added, she’ll need to ramp up her efforts considerably.

“It takes a village to make these quilts,” Nebeker said.

Throughout the Iraq war, Nebeker’s intent has been to send a quilt to every wounded service member from the Northwest. She and the volunteers who help are apolitical in their work — a tenet she holds fast to. Their focus is on appreciating the injured men, women and their families, not international politics.

“We want to support out troops,” she said. “We cannot ever have another Vietnam. We cannot.”

But the project is daunting, even for a doer like Nebeker.

Currently, there are 4,000 men and women from the Northwest in Afghanistan, and as badly injured as the people were in Iraq, the injuries are worse in Afghanistan, a country that has seen decades of violence. Many of the weapons Afghan troops use came from the United States, which supported Afghanistan in its war against the Soviet Union 20 years ago, and the geography of the country is such that there is no place to hide.

History does not shed a positive light on the current prospects there, Nebeker noted: “No outside force has ever won a conflict in Afghanistan.”

And so Nebeker, Su DeWalt, the project’s part-time and only employee, and many volunteers are at work making quilts and reaching out to others who might want to participate. The volunteer roster is about 500 people, although only about 200 are currently active, according to Clark Nebeker, Sue’s husband, who also contributes considerable time to the project.

The ranks include a woman in New Orleans who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina and who uses a refurbished sewing machine from the Nebekers to make quilt tops in her FEMA trailer. Several women at the Women’s Correctional Center in Purdy also participate.

When Nebeker’s energy starts to flag, she thinks about some of the wounded men and women she has met over the last few years and the challenges they’ve had to overcome. One young injured woman, for instance, received a quilt after being injured and losing her legs. Her husband had been killed in Iraq and she was a single mother to their three children.

Nebeker thought the woman would be unable to surmount such heartache and trauma, but when Nebeker returned to the hospital, she saw the young woman looking strong, running on the track on her prosthetic fins.

“If she can do it, I can do it,” Nebeker said.

As she has done before, Nebeker is looking to Islanders to support the project, this time with Operation Quilt Drop, a fundraiser set for Nov. 7.

Each quilt has roughly $200 worth of materials in it and at least 20 hours of labor. If labor is valued at $10 an hour, that equates to $2.4 million in materials and labor for the 6,000 quilts already given out.

“It is always a challenge,” Nebeker said about funding the project. “My experience is that Vashon will step up if you ask.”

In her studio, amidst the sewing machines and yards of fabric in a kaleidoscope of patriotic hues, is a folder with thank-you letters from those who have received quilts. One, in large, shaky pencil printing, says simply, “Thank you qult, John USMC.” Another, one typed from a mother of a wounded young man, expressed what the quilt has meant to their family: “We thought we had lost him emotionally, and we despaired of ever getting him back. ... This quilt seems to give him comfort, warmth and is the first sign that maybe our son will come back to us.”

With these stories in mind, Nebeker is looking forward to the fundraiser and the community support that might come from it to help meet the coming challenges in Afghanistan and here at home.

“I’m very hopeful,” she said.

A benefit for American Hero Quilts will be held Saturday, Nov. 7, at Sound Food. From noon to 4 p.m. a high tea will be catered by Christine Millican and Kristine Nelson, who specialize in high teas.

Between 6 and 9:30 p.m., there will be a party with wine, music and hors d’oeuvres, catered by Mardi Ljubich of Shefidgets Catering. A silent auction will be held. People can also contribute funds to buy a quilt for a soldier and to mail a package to Afghanistan.

Tickets are available at Books by the Way and Vashon Bookshop. The tea is $15, and the evening party is $25. Reservations for the tea are necessary; call Sharon Aukland at 463-3334.

For more information, call Nebeker at 463-5650 or visit www.americanheroquilts.com.

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