DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del. — In 2003, Catherine Roberts, a midwife by profession and quilter for 25 years 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 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,” because his wife, Connie, was also a quilter.
Chaplain Kallerson accepted the first quilt for a wounded soldier and “opened the doors at Walter Reed for our Quilts of Valor,” Roberts said.
At the same time, Roberts checked to see if there were any organized efforts to provide quilts to wounded warriors. Her research found none anywhere in the nation, so she moved forward to develop the foundation.
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 — www.QOVF.org — to connect quilters, and developed a system to find recipients at dozens of medical facilities and get 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 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.”
From 2003 to 2009, the foundation intended to award quilts to each U.S. servicemember wounded physically or psychologically by service in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The mission has expanded to include all U.S. servicemembers and veterans from all conflicts affected by war.
In order 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 U.S. and to several in Iraq and Afghanistan, Veterans Affairs medical centers, U.S. and overseas military bases, two U.S. military service academies and Arlington National Cemetery.
Quilt of Valor awards also occurred aboard military transports flying troops from the combat theater to the U.S., 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 Amercian Red Cross members assist in awarding hundreds of quilts.
A kindergarten class from New York once traveled to Walter Reed with their parents to deliver quilts the children helped make.
To date, more than 23,000 active-duty, Reserve and National Guard troops have been awarded Quilts of Valor; the majority for soldiers, followed by Marines, Airmen, Sailors and Coast Guardsmen.
“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.’”
As Roberts continued efforts to support troops during wartime, she became aware of the Port Mortuary at Dover Air Force Base after reading about the center in Operation Homecoming.
The 2006 book, an initiative launched by the National Endowment for the Arts, is a collection of e-mails and letters from troops and their families to record their wartime experience.
She learned how the nearly 100 center 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 going back to 1980. The impact on the workers awarded the quilts has been, “Huge, just huge,” Sparks said. “The quilt fits the wounds of the people here.”
Sparks said initially when most people begin work at the Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations Center they experience a sense of horror, and then the feelings transition to profound sadness.
“My first day and week was really hard at AFMAO,” 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). When I put this quilt around my shoulders, I feel the loving arms of this country and the quilters who made it.”
Roberts said she is aware that there is a ratio of about 10 wounded troops for every troop killed in warfare. And there could be twice as many troops wounded in recent combat as the number of quilts awarded so far.
Adding in veterans of the Vietnam War and other conflicts affected by war, and the number of people eligible for a Quilt of Valor award grows significantly higher.
To meet this demand, the quilters behind the foundation press on, exemplifying the attitude expressed in the signature line in Roberts’ e-mails and newsletter, “Still at war — still quilting!”
In June, Quilts of Valor volunteers traveled 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 awards were given to 1,352 Marines assigned to 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, Camp Lejeune, who had just returned home after a seven-month rotation to southern Afghanistan supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.
Quilts of Valor members wrote daily blogs during the caravan, and news coverage of the ceremonies gave Quilts of Valor more exposure.
Roberts is intimately familiar with wartime military service because of her children. When she began Quilts of Valor, her son was preparing to go to Iraq in an Army military police unit. He completed a one-year deployment and was awarded a Purple Heart after sustaining shrapnel wounds.
Her daughter graduated as an ensign this spring from the U.S. Naval Academy, and begins sea duty this fall.
Roberts wants to enlist the help of others, including high-profile citizens and their families, to quilt and to spread the word about Quilts of Valor as a way to support more Americans affected by war.
The benefits of such support can run both ways. In exchanges between quilters, troops and their families, Roberts said, each experience a range of emotions during and after Quilts of Valor award ceremonies.
She has observed sadness and silence from award recipients during ceremonies, sometimes with tears shared by the servicemember and others in the room. Servicemembers often say a few words about their wartime experiences, the loss of their unit brothers and sisters downrange or the impact on their families during deployments.
Many quilters later receive notes of appreciation from troops. There is healing not just for the warriors, but for us, Roberts said.
The most common statements made by Quilts of Valor award recipients are, “I don’t deserve this. Give it to my buddy,” or, “I was just doing my job,” or, “I didn’t think anyone cared,” Roberts said.
From our Vietnam veterans, Roberts often hears words such as, “This is the first time in 45 years that anyone has acknowledged my service to our country,” or, “I didn’t know how much I needed this.”
Reflecting on the many troops and their families whom 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.”
To learn more about the Quilts of Valor Foundation, to read instructions on making a quilt, or to find quilting activities near your base or hometown, visit the foundation Web site at www.QOVF.org.