American Hero Quilts Galleria offers thanks to Iraq, Afghanistan veterans

July 17, 2012

By Christina Lords

Bellewood Retirement Center residents Ursula Tueffers (from left), Merle Klavano, Herb Lyons and Peggy Duncan unfold a quilt that will be displayed with others in the galleria display space for four weeks before being sent to soldiers. By Greg Farrar

She never heard his voice.

She never shook his hand or gave him a hug.

She didn’t even know his name until after he hanged himself.

But the story of Ken Dennis, a 22-year-old Marine who took his short life in 2004 after serving in Iraq, still haunts Sue Nebeker eight years later.

“He and his dad were at the mall,” she said, “and his dad said he looked around and said, ‘You know, I don’t fit in here anymore. I can’t do this. I’ve seen too much.’”

Nebeker would first learn of the Marine’s story in “The War Comes Home: Rifleman couldn’t take any more,” an August 2004 Seattle Post-Intelligencer article about Dennis’ struggle — facing the challenges of a recently discharged serviceman. And while most people would absorb the information and move on, Nebeker knew she had to do something.

That’s when she started American Hero Quilts, a project that aims to ensure wounded veterans in Iraq and Afghanistan come home to a tangible thank you through the warmth and comfort of a patriotic quilt. Nebeker vows to continue the project until U.S. forces are out of Afghanistan, and she is working to make quilts available to Vietnam veterans as well.

“I don’t want them treated as people were treated when they came back from Vietnam,” she said. “I wanted to say thank you. We put posters around Vashon saying we were making quilts for wounded warriors. My husband was very concerned no one would actually show up.”

One hundred quilts later, Nebeker delivered them to then-Fort Lewis’ Madigan Army Medical Center.

“They said, ‘This is just wonderful. When are you coming back?’” she said.

If you go

American Hero Quilts Galleria Opening

  • 1-4 p.m. July 21
  • Bellewood Retirement Center, 3710 Providence Point Drive S.E.
  • Free and open to the public

On the Web

Learn more about the American Hero Quilts project or donate to the cause at www.americanheroquilts.com.

Now, 11,214 quilts later, Nebeker will share her and her fellow quilters’ story — including the Sammamish Sew Whats quilt group that has been working on quilts for the project for several years — at the Bellewood Retirement Center in Issaquah.

A four-hour galleria opening begins at 1 p.m. July 21 in the lobby of the Bellewood Retirement Center. The event will open with a presentation by the Liberty High School Navy ROTC Color Guard, and Nebeker will be on hand to answer questions and greet the public.

The opening features quilts, letters, photos and words of thanks that have been collected throughout the project’s existence.

Powerful stories

Many powerful stories of thanks and appreciation stand out to Nebeker and those who work on each quilt — each with one simple, strong message attached to each one: “You are our hero. Thank you.”

One such story came to Nebeker from a young woman working as a nurse attending the wounded in Afghanistan.

One of her tasks was laying the American Hero Quilts on wounded soldiers and Marines as they were waiting for aircraft to transport them from the tarmac to medical hospitals.

“She said, ‘When I got back to the states, I wanted to let you all know how important these quilts were to our wounded,’” Nebeker said, “‘It’s always been such a moving, patriotic thing.’ But she went on to say in her letter, ‘Imagine my surprise when I woke up and found myself covered in red, white and blue, covered in one of the quilts.’”

Supporting the effort

American Hero Quilts sends about 125 quilts per month to Joint Base Lewis-McChord and an additional 50 quilts wherever they are needed. Quilts have come to the organization from as far away as Scotland, and donations of quilts and materials pour in from across the country, Nebeker said.

“Some people make quilt tops, some people quilt quilts and some people just make bindings,” Nebeker said. “We established ourselves as a nonprofit, and some people make donations. That’s really helpful because then we can buy fabric wholesale and get more bang for the buck than someone just going to a fabric store.”

Tickets sold for a raffle quilt at the galleria opening will benefit the project and donations will be accepted.

From gathering materials to shipping the finished product (many of which are sent straight over to Afghanistan to offer instant comfort when a vet is wounded), each quilt costs about $300.

“We run on a budget of $25,000 a year,” Nebeker said. “You can see where that doesn’t work out mathematically, so we’re always grateful for fundraising. We want people to say, ‘I can help do this. I can help make quilts.’”

Lynn Adams, who works in the program department for the retirement center, said Bellewood’s World War II veterans will be on hand to support the effort.

“People are getting war weary,” she said. “America has moved on … but there are still men and women coming home with their arms and legs blown off. They’re still coming home injured.”

Members of the public are welcome to view the project and give what they can.

“The emphasis on this is the event is really a fundraiser,” Adams said. “Sue does so much. She’s retired, and these costs come out of her pocket.”

Christina Lords: 392-6434, ext. 239, or newcastle@isspress.com. Comment at www.issaquahpress.com.

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