A Warm Gesture: The Quilts of Valor Foundation shows veterans they are appreciated – one stitch at a time

by Meagan Burgad | Photography by Leland A. Outz

Karen Marshall’s sewing machine furiously speeds along as she deftly sews the red, white and blue fabric into intricate squares. She finishes her block before bringing it to the back table where another volunteer pins the squares together before they are to be sewn again to create the quilt top. On the other side of the room, someone cuts more fabric for a second quilt, while in the corner yet another helper irons seams. At the center of the controlled chaos is Amy Makson – buzzing around the room checking off each task as it is finished, assigning new projects as needed. Everywhere you look crafty quilters are cutting, sewing, ironing and smiling. It’s a gathering that looks like any other quilting circle you would find across the country except for one difference – every quilt lovingly created by these volunteers will go to a veteran touched by war.

Since 2007, the Sandhills Quilters Guild has belonged to the Quilts of Valor Foundation. The foundation, less than 20 years old, was created by Catherine Roberts of Delaware, whose son Nat was in the Army. One night while Nat was deployed in Iraq, Catherine had a startling dream of a young soldier struggling with the demons of war. In her dream, a quilt appeared out of nowhere and wrapped the young man in its warm embrace. Catherine woke up with an idea she couldn’t shake – a handmade quilt made with love could be a powerful tool towards healing young military members. The program started slowly, first only awarding quilts to active duty military members who were wounded physically or mentally in the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. However, it soon became apparent the Quilts of Valor Foundation could help veterans of previous conflicts as well.

To be awarded a Quilt of Valor a military member must be nominated. The nomination can come from anyone including a friend, fellow military member, wife, husband or even a neighbor. The only two requirements are they must have served in a time of conflict and they cannot have previously been awarded a quilt. The nomination process can be completed on the Quilts of Valor website. If you live in Moore County you can simply contact the Sandhills Quilters Guild.

Makson and Marshall, both proud members of the Sandhills Quilters Guild, are co-chairs of the Quilts of Valor Foundation in the Moore County area. Together with the tireless effort of quilting volunteers (including many men and woman who are not part of the Sandhills Quilters Guild), they have awarded approximately 120 quilts to area veterans. Recipients range from the youngest, a mere 20 years old, to the oldest, a WWII veteran who was awarded a quilt on his 99th birthday. As the Quilts of Valor Foundation has grown in popularity Makson and Marshall have even partnered with the Sandhills MOAA (Military Officers Association of America) to present quilts to six veterans during their 2017 Veterans Day celebration in Pinehurst. They plan to continue the tradition this year by presenting another six quilts during the MOAA Veterans Day ceremony.

While each person awarded a quilt is different, one thing remains the same, no matter how many times Makson and Marshall present a quilt, it is an emotional experience. While the quilts awarded during the MOAA celebration have a more formal presentation, each recipient can decide how they would like to receive their quilt. Many times, it is the smaller ceremonies that are the most touching, such as in 2015 when a man contacted Makson and Marshall to nominate his wife for a Quilt of Valor. While both he and his wife were veterans, the man refused a quilt of his own. Instead, he nominated his wife, who after a long fight with cancer had only been given a few months to live. “He was so in love with her,” says Makson. “He was so eager to have her have this quilt. He was so wanting her to have it. And now that she’s gone he treasures it. It reminds him of his wife.”

Sometimes Makson and Marshall don’t even need to be there when the quilt is presented to feel an emotional connection. One of the first quilts Marshall completed was sent to a military hospital overseas. She had almost forgotten about it when a few months later she received a message that still brings tears to her eyes. “I had an email from a woman, a long time ago,” Marshall says while wiping her eyes. “She said she was being wheeled down the hall and the chaplain came and put the quilt over her. She said how much it helped her going into surgery. Then afterward she wouldn’t let the quilt out of her sight. It just meant so much to her.”

While the local Quilts of Valor Foundation awards quilts to all ages, most of the nominees in the past few years have been Vietnam veterans. It’s this specific group of people Makson may be most excited about connecting with. “Those of us who lived through Vietnam remember,” says Makson, an undercurrent of steely resolve behind her carefully chosen words. “When they came home through the airport people spit at them. It was an awful time. I think that’s why when this conflict started people were going out of their way to make sure our veterans and active military were appreciated because we remember a time when they weren’t.”

When Makson and Marshall were contacted by Evelyn White they knew her husband Stephen would be a perfect nominee for Quilts of Valor. A Navy Vietnam veteran, Stephen was a prime example of how the men and women returning from the Vietnam War were treated. “When he came home many years ago it was like nobody cared they were in Vietnam. He literally went to college and wore his jacket and he was spit at. That’s how they treated the Vietnam vets,” says Evelyn. After gathering all the information they needed to make nomination final, the group sets a date for Stephen to be awarded his quilt.

It’s a humid Saturday afternoon, but inside the White house the air is cool and the conversation is flowing. Stephen E. White sits stoically off to the side, uncertain with what he knows is coming, and maybe even a little bit nervous. Stephen’s wife Evelyn asks his friends and family to gather around as Makson and Marshall step to the front of the room. Makson gives a short but touching speech explaining the Quilts of Valor Foundation and thanking White for his service. Marshall presents the quilt and asks if he will stand so they can drape it around his shoulders, a tradition of the Quilts of Valor Foundation. Evelyn takes a breath, ready to receive the quilt for her husband, knowing he hates to be the center of attention. But the room quiets as Stephen slowly stands up and turns to Marshall so she can drape the beautiful red, white and blue quilt over his shoulders. Standing proud Stephen holds the quilt around him as his eyes begin to water.

After pictures have been taken and Makson has presented Stephen with his certificate he sits down again and holds the quilt in his lap. When asked what is going through his head, Stephen thinks for a moment then says, “I tend to think about the guys I served with and my heart goes out to them. So I feel grateful and thankful.” Looking down at the quilt again Stephen continues, “I think it [Quilts of Valor] particularly helps Vietnam vets who are given this because we really got nothing. I think it’s good for everybody, but I think for some of the Vietnam vets who are still around it’s very gratifying.”

In the kitchen, Evelyn can’t quit smiling. “At first, [Stephen] wasn’t sure,” she says. “Then when I told him they had contacted me he kind of had this big grin on his face and I kind of knew this was something that would be very appreciated by him. I felt extremely proud. I felt good because I knew he felt good. And I’m really proud of his service. It’s just a nice way to honor him. He’s been through a lot and I just want him to feel good about himself.”