Story & photos by Deborah Horn
The senior trip for many young men who graduated high school in the late ‘60s was no Miami Beach tropical paradise, but rather a hot, humid combat spot near Saigon.
The U.S. was mired in the Vietnam War for almost 11 years with more than 2.7 million Americans serving there. On average more than 17 military personnel died each day. That’s nearly 122 per week. The death total was 58,148.
One stitch at a time
Kay Hester, of Pine Bluff, remembers that era well because of the strife and anti-war sentiment sweeping the nation, “The guys didn’t really get a welcome home.”
Nearly five decades later, these Southeast Arkansas women along with many others are working to change that by joining forces with the national nonprofit, the Quilts of Valor. The goal of the foundation is “to cover service members and veterans touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor,” according to their website.
There are 13 Arkansas groups under this organization’s umbrella, including the Pine Bluff branch, “Never Forgotten With Honor,” which is only about a year old.
Hester, the group’s leader and a founding member, says there are branches in every state and as of June 1, they had presented 182,702 quilts to vets around the country. That’s about 1,828 per month or 637 per week.
As of April, Never Forgotten With Honor’s 27 members had presented handmade quilts to 50 veterans, no matter the war they served in.
Marine Corporal Patsy Brown was one of those recipients.
Brown, who served during the Vietnam area, is now a Pine Bluff resident. She says she was surprised by the quilt and left teary-eyed.
“I was very humbled and honored…I am so proud to have been in the Marine Corps and receiving a Quilt of Valor was wonderful,” she says.
Air Force SSgt. Dianna Winfree, of Redfield, was also honored with a quilt for her service, and both she and Brown have now joined the Pine Bluff group that honored them.
Brown says, “What a honor it is for us to honor our veterans.”
Hester expresses a similar sentiment, “It’s all about the veteran.”
Sewing with honor
Winfree says she quilts with a reason. Originally, she had planned to make a quilt for C.A. Archer, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who did three tours in Vietnam and one for her uncle Bobby Wofford, who served in the Navy during the Korean War.
She never got around to it before their deaths.
Winfree says, “This is where my heart is. I can’t makeup for not making those quilts for them but I can make them for others. I’m very emotional about the mission of the Quilts of Valor.”
Hester has her reasons as well.
“I didn’t do anything to recognize my father, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Howell O. Richardson. This is my way of honoring him, and my uncles and brothers who also served.”
The Quilts of Honor Foundation has certain requirements of the red, white and blue quilts presented under their name, including size, fabric choices and more.
According to Hester, each quilt usually costs about $250 to make.
Between fabric selection, cutting, piecing and stitching it all together — a creative, labor–intensive process that’s often underappreciated by the non-quilting public — it takes 50 hours to complete each one.
Of course, “the work is spread out among the group,” and the friendships the women are making are priceless, Hester says.
Each quilt is encased in a handmade pillowcase and each is marked with an embroidered label.
They often work at Hester’s quilt studio and the second Monday and Tuesday of each month at the Trinity Lutheran Church at 4200 Old Warren Rd. in Pine Bluff.
The church allows the quilters to hold their presentation services and quilt workdays there at no charge.
They start working around 9 a.m. and anyone interested in checking out their group is welcome, Hester says.
Honoring our military heroes
On Saturday, May 5, the Pine Bluff chapter awarded 14 veterans with quilts. “It’s more than just handing them one,” Hester says. Unless a medical emergency or other reason, the quilts are presented with a military-worthy ceremony at Trinity Lutheran Church.
The church’s Pastor Stewart Marshall, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves during the 1990s, was honored with a quilt.
“It validated the service I committed,” he says.
“The ceremonies are meaningful to the recipients,” and Marshall adds, “It’s personal, each quilt is made for the individual person. It’s wonderful when someone is recognized.”
There is a scripted presentation, including the reading of Mary Welch’s poem, “Quilts of Valor”, the National Anthem, and the American Legion in Pine Bluff presents the Military Colors. Refreshments are also served.
They also honor the nation’s MIA/POWs (Missing in Action/Prisoner of War). As of May 2015, more than 1,600 who served in Vietnam remain unaccounted for.
Winfree explains that this includes “an empty chair and a setting for one. We’ve done it four times but not once without tears rolling down my face.”
For all the women, it’s about not forgetting the individual’s service to the country.
“You see these big guys, who served in Vietnam, with tears in their eyes…Some of them have never been welcomed home. Never even gotten a thank you.” Winfree says.
Hester adds, “We thank everyone for their service during the ceremony…their reaction touches your heart.”
For more information about joining the Quilts of Valor Pine Bluff chapter, Never Forgotten With Honor, or about making a donation to the national organization that will benefit local veterans, call Kay Hester at 1(870) 536-5640 or go to: qovf.org for more information or to request a quilt for a service member.