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American Hero Quilts logs a landmark in project for wounded vets
Staff Sgt. J.B. was on patrol in Iraq one night last summer searching for a rocket the insurgents had fired. Leery of cobras and keeping an eye out for the venomous snakes, he fell down a ravine, badly injuring his knee.
In early September, J.B. (who asked that his full name not be used) returned to the United States because of that injury and an earlier one that had left him with several bone chips in his neck and in considerable pain. He did not return to his family in Idaho, however, but to the Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB) at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, where he expects to live until January. Upon arriving, he received a red, white and blue quilt from the Vashon-based American Hero Quilts project.
“It’s really nice,” he said recently. “The rooms are a little bland. I have mine spread over my bed — it’s a nice splash of color.”
To be sent to the WTB, a soldier must have an injury or illness that Army medical officials deem will take six months or more of complex medical care to heal. J.B. is just one of 500 servicemen and women living there, coping with severe health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injuries and orthopedic injuries. Some stay for years.
Last week Sue Nebeker, the force behind American Hero Quilts, welcomed J.B. to her Maury Island home and quilt studio, along with Amin Arreola, the outreach program coordinator of the Soldier and Family Assistance Center. They were there to pick up 100 of the colorful quilts and take them back to give to soldiers arriving at the WTB.
The $53 million facility just opened in August, in the wake of the 2007 scandal at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, when inadequate care and poor conditions for returning veterans came to light.
This new facility is excellent, Arreola said.
“This is the only battalion in the whole U.S. Army whose mission is to heal,” he said.
J.B. concurred. “It would be easy to sit in my room and pull the drapes shut and not talk to anybody,” he said. “We go about the business of healing up what needs to be healed.”
For Nebeker, who has given over the lower floor of her home to the project all these years, it is an honor to have her quilts covering the men and women there.
“That’s very moving to me,” she said. “That was the point of starting the organization: that we would have a chance to be part of helping people heal and let them know we appreciate them.”
Nebeker started out in 2004 by delivering 100 quilts to Madigan Army Hospital at Fort Lewis, and as wars have raged in Afghanistan and Iraq, Nebeker, her one part-time employee Su DeWalt and numerous project volunteers have sewn, delivered and shipped more than 10,000 quilts to wounded men and women returning to the United States. Nebeker and DeWalt both think of the quilts as hugs that enfold each recipient.
Nebeker could not have imagined the magnitude of the project seven years ago. Ten thousand is a number, she said, that makes her “incredibly sad.”
“I know the people we’re covering have the most incredible journey ahead of them, not just the injury, but the journey ahead, the PTSD, the healing of their wounds, the trying to come back and have a normal life. I don’t think it’s very easy given the things they have seen.”
American Hero Quilts, each one hand sewn and labelled with the words, “You are our hero. Thank you,” go not just to the WTB, but to a military hospital in Afghanistan as well. Between the two destinations, roughly 250 quilts pass through Nebeker’s hands each month. With the simplest of quilts taking roughly 45 hours to create and more elaborate ones 100 hours, Nebeker and DeWalt could not do this alone.
“Without the quilt guild on Vashon, we could not keep going,” Nebeker said. “They have cut hundreds of yards of fabric, sewn in thousands of bindings and made countless quilt tops and quilts.”
The project has volunteers in each of the 50 states; several women at the Washington Correctional Center for Women in Purdy also participate, Nebeker said. It is a way for the women to gain skills, benefit others and acquire a sense of accomplishment.
No matter who makes the quilts, Nebeker sets the bar high.
“The quilts are for heroes,” she said, “and we make that very clear.”
Clark Nebeker, Sue’s husband, recently calculated some of the numbers behind the 10,000 figure. Each quilt weighs about 4 pounds, meaning 40,000 pounds of quilts have been delivered. The fabric and batting for one quilt can easily cost $300, which, for 10,000 quilts, comes to $3 million.
As preparations are being made to bring troops home from Iraq, Sue Nebeker looks ahead. She would like the troops to come home from Afghanistan, she said, and she would like to do more with Vietnam vets.
“In my travels, I have met Vietnam vets who I have thought needed quilts,” she said.
When that has happened, she and DeWalt have sent them a quilt with a note thanking them for their service and apologizing that it has taken so long to express such gratitude. She has sent off roughly 100 of these quilts in the last year.
“There is still so much pain out there,” she said.
That is true for those returning now, she noted.
“I don’t think people realize how many wounded there are and the help they will need,” she said. “I am not sure why that isn’t the first thing in the newspaper and on TV everyday.”
For Nebeker, there is no clear end in sight for her work.
“I will stop when my body wears out or when we have our people home, and the people we’ve needed to hug, we’ve hugged,” she said.
American Hero Quilts will host a fundraiser on Saturday, Nov. 12, at the former VFW Hall, now Vashon Island Books. From 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. there will be an English tea, and from 7 to 9 p.m. there will be cocktails, appetizers and a silent auction. Sue Nebeker noted the quilt project needs support this year more than ever before.
Tickets, $20 and $25, are available at Vashon Bookshop.