With Gratitude In Every Stitch

By Jura Koncius
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

The carefully packed boxes stack up daily in the chaplain's quarters at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, about 50 a week. The instructions read simply: "Please give this to a soldier." Chaplain John L. Kallerson, an Army major, gently opens each one and places the contents around his windowless office. Then he lays his big hands on the piles and says a blessing.

His is the ministry of the quilts.

A phone call to the chaplain four years ago has created a national movement to say thank you to soldiers wounded in the war on terror.

More than 7,900 "comfort quilts," each carefully stitched with love and gratitude, have been sent through the Quilts of Valor Foundation to the wounded soldiers at Walter Reed and 70 other U.S. military medical centers. Kallerson prays over and hands out quilts from church groups, schoolchildren, quilting bees. Quilts made from accomplished artists whose designs sell for thousands. Quilts with bears, fish, basketballs. Quilts with hot-pink flowers for wounded women.

Amish and Mennonites have sent them anonymously. Children at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind have created Braille quilts for soldiers who have lost their sight. Some donors, such as Native Americans who sent quilts bearing warrior symbols, have requested that their quilts be given to kindred spirits. Many have special messages: "You are our hero." "You are very brave."

Some arrive with letters, tapes or prayers.

"This is a gift from the heartland," Kallerson said. "Soldiers get CD players and iPods and DVDs, but this is the greatest gift of all. It comes from people's hearts. This is a simple thank you for your service."

Deborah Francisco, a defense contractor from St. Leonard, spent a year making one with the black and gold Army 1st Cavalry logo. "I hope the soldier who got it feels like someone is thinking of him," Francisco said.

This is how it got started: An accomplished Delaware quilter, Catherine Roberts, contacted Kallerson. She wanted to sew a blue and white Ohio Star quilt and donate it to a wounded service member. For every soldier killed, she knew there were 10 wounded.

"I had this vision in my head of a soldier waking up with horrible flashbacks," said Roberts, 57, a midwife and a quilter for 25 years. "I saw him wrapping himself up in a quilt."

Kallerson talks to a lot of people who want to donate things, but the hospital doesn't have the space or staff to handle them. Still, he was intrigued by Roberts's offer. He had someone in mind, an amputee from Minnesota, who was experiencing phantom pain. He gratefully received the quilt.

Then Roberts realized that she needed to reach more soldiers. "I got all my quilting people together and told them we had to start making quilts for all the wounded. Plenty of people were sending goggles and rat traps and things like that to the soldiers in the war, and there were programs for the families of our fallen heroes. But I didn't see anything targeting service members who had been wounded."

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