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American Heroes

When It Comes to War, There Are Champions Not Only on the Front Lines but Also on the Homefront

Article by Mary Bernard

Photography by Todd Smith, Conni Smith

Originally published in Kirkland Lifestyle

“Thank you for your service.” This expression of appreciation is offered to U.S. service members every day. But there is a group of sewers who have taken it upon themselves to express their gratitude in a different and unique way.

The American Hero Quilts volunteers, who gather in various locations across the country, create quilts for military men and women injured in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Calling a quilt a “metaphorical hug,” the organization aims to provide recognition and appreciation, ease suffering and offer a kind of simple comfort that feels like home. 

Design Considerations

Each quilt has its own design, inspired by the individual who initiates it. There are some standards, however. The color scheme must be red, white and blue, the fabric must be 100% good quality cotton, and the backing cannot be white or beige, because it may become stained by blood, a solemn reminder of what our service members can experience in the field. Each recipient of a twin-sized quilt gets to keep it.

“While these standards may seem overwhelmingly demanding,” the website says, “We cannot emphasize the importance of providing quality quilts to our wounded heroes.” All of the group’s recommendations are meant to ensure that each recipient receives a quilt that will not interfere with the healing process.

The Quilting Group

American Hero Quilts’ volunteers, 800 total nationwide, have created and shipped more than 30,000 quilts since Sue Nebeker, of Vashon Island, started the organization in 2004. Little did they know they would still be doing this work 15 years later.

Conni Smith, of Poulsbo, started an American Hero Quilts group almost 10 years ago. The upper floor of her large garage is now home to some 17 seamstresses who gather weekly and together create about 25 quilts per month. It is one of the larger groups in the organization, Conni says. A handmade sign at her place reads “Conni’s Sweat Shop.” 

Conni and her husband owned Kirkland Sand & Gravel before moving on to another business in Kitsap County. She says most of the women in her group are retired business people, who could be doing other things with their time.

“They do this out of love,” she says, “And I’m just really proud of them.”

A Labor of Love

The Poulsbo quilting group is social but productive.

“I just love these ladies,” Conni says. “They’re so giving.”

Almost all of the women have spouses who served in some branch of the military, and Conni’s husband was in the Army. The women make all of the quilt tops and then the top—along with the batting and backing—is sent to someone with a longarm quilting machine for assembly. As the name suggests, the wide chassis of the longarm machine allows the sewer to feed through large swaths of fabric at one time. Some of the tops and materials are sent to other volunteers to be quilted. 

Package Delivery

After the assembly is finished, the quilts go to Vashon Island, where the local volunteer fire department boxes them up for shipping to bases in Afghanistan and Qatar. Sometimes quilts are sent to other destinations because there has been a specific request. No quilt goes to waste. Quilts that are donated or made by the group may also be sent to Madigan Hospital at Joint Base Lewis McCord or other Warrior Transition Centers in the U.S. 

The Gift of Giving

Conni funds the quilting endeavor on her own, buying the fabric and materials and keeping the shared workspace ready and tidy.

“Our soldiers are so important,” she says. “Our service people are undervalued, so I’m very passionate about giving back. It always comes back tenfold.”

When she spots a couple of Navy guys around the base in Poulsbo, she’s been known to buy them lunch. 

Military personnel are likewise passionate about their quilts. One photo from an American Hero quilt recipient in Afghanistan carried the caption: “Thank you so much for the quilt. It’s absolutely beautiful and makes me feel at home. Forever humbled and grateful.”

How to Help

Fundraising for any volunteer organization is an ongoing effort, so the quilters sometimes make appearances with their goods at county fairs or other events. They don’t sell the quilts, but these appearances offer a good opportunity for the group to publicize what they do and potentially generate contributions. 

People who want to participate in an American Hero group need not be quilters, but it’s helpful if they know how to sew and cut fabric. Some have come with no experience at all and learned as they went along, Conni says. 

American Hero Quilts is always looking for volunteers, and there are many ways to support the effort in addition to sewing. For more information about the quilts and how you can support the organization, visit AmericanHeroQuilts.com.

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