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NW Quiltmakers Sew Together To Comfort Iraq Vets

  • Tom Banse

While U.S. politicians debate the war in Iraq, soldiers wounded in the fighting keep coming home, and individual Americans are taking action to help them. Tom Banse has the story of a quilt maker in Washington state, who inspired others around the nation to make beautiful blankets to give to wounded soldiers. To date, they have delivered an astonishing 2500 handmade quilts.

Sue Nebeker was savoring early retirement back in August 2004. As she did most mornings, she took a seat in her waterfront family room on Vashon Island, near Seattle, and opened the newspaper. That day, the front-page feature profiled a combat rifleman from Washington State. He had committed suicide after returning home from a tour in Iraq.

"I was really horrified," she recalls, "and not really happy about the war either, and trying to think of what I could do, wanting to make sure that we didn't have another Vietnam and that our soldiers were honored for what they did." A self-described 'child of the '60's,' Nebeker remembers the public anger that greeted soldiers returning from the Vietnam War. "I couldn't think of what to do, so I thought about quilts and the fact that they are metaphoric hugs."

She decided to organize a 'Quilt-a-thon.' Vashon islanders like Su DeWalt responded en masse and followed instructions to 'check their politics at the door.' "People feel so helpless about this war," DeWalt explains, "so when there's something that they can do in a positive way, it unites them and makes them feel like at least there's something we can do that we feel is positive."

Three frenzied days of sewing ensued. Then Nebeker and friends delivered 100 quilts to Madigan Army Hospital at Fort Lewis, Washington. It might have ended there, were it not for an off-hand comment. "We took the quilts down and they said, 'This is wonderful. When are you coming back?'" she recalls with a laugh. "So I came home and started trying to think how we could make this work."

Nebeker used the Internet to enlist a network of quiltmakers and quilting guilds. Today, it takes a cadre of volunteers to sew together all of the pieces that pour in to her basement studio from cities across the country and as far away as Ireland and Scotland. Each quilt represents untold hours of work.

The primary recipients are wounded soldiers and airmen in military hospitals. But on request, Nebeker will also mail a quilt to the survivors of a serviceman or woman. "We're up in the 2200s for the wounded warriors and hundreds of bereavement quilts and children's quilts," Nebeker says, adding that they don't keep a tally on the bereavement quilts. "It's unbearable."

Last year, the toll of the work and all the casualties it represents, brought Nebeker to the edge of quitting. Then she took a call from a wounded soldier. He'd been feeling really down. She recounts the conversation. "He said, 'You know, ma'am, I got in that emergency room and that nurse wrapped a quilt around me.' And he said, 'It was like my momma and my grandma and all the people that love me were there, holding me and hugging me.' He said, 'I will treasure this until the day I die.'''

She kept sewing, and in February, her outfit, American Hero Quilts, made another delivery to Fort Lewis. Nebeker and Su DeWalt arrived in a Volvo stuffed to the roof with new quilts. Recovering soldiers helped them unload and got first pick.

One of them was Sgt. James Dahl, who was hit by a roadside bomb in Iraq. The Missoula, Montana, native is a patchwork himself. He's undergone brain surgery, knee surgery, shoulder surgery and is scheduled for neck surgery. He says what the quilters are doing makes a big difference to the soldiers. "My dad came back from Vietnam — I was six years old the first time — and there was nothing. We come back here and there is an outpouring of love from the community."

Specialist David Divine is also staying in the long-term recovery barracks. His red-white-and-blue star patterned quilt comes on the heels of other gifts from strangers such as a Christmas stocking, food, and games. "You know, if nobody was out there supporting us, it'd be miserable," he says.

The quilts provide comfort to these troops. But — remembering the ex-Marine she read about in the newspaper three-and-half years ago — Nebeker hopes one of her quilts will actually save a life.

"Maybe if we're really incredibly fortunate, it would mean that someone looked at a quilt — or wrapped a quilt around them — and said, 'I think I can get through this hard time. I think I can make it. I think I can go forward.' If that happened just once," she says, "then all of this would have been worth it."

The quiltmakers vow to keep sewing until all those serving in the Iraq War come home.