Quilters comfort and thank soldiers home from war

Visiting soldiers (left to right) Benjamin Ruhlman, David Little, and Kirk Birchfield received Quilts of Valor at a welcome reception the Nixons hosted at the Beach Plum Inn Sunday night.
Photo by Karen Messineo

Visiting soldiers (left to right) Benjamin Ruhlman, David Little, and Kirk Birchfield received Quilts of Valor at a welcome reception the Nixons hosted at the Beach Plum Inn Sunday night.

News gets around the Martha’s Vineyard fishing community. But Island fishermen cannot hold a rod to the members of the Quilts of Valor Foundation (QOVF), a nonprofit national grassroots organization.

Despite short notice, big-hearted volunteer quilters from around the United States pulled together to make sure each of the participants in the American Heroes Saltwater Challenge that began on Sunday would go home with a warm quilt, a tangible reminder of their country’s gratitude for their service and sacrifice.

The story thread begins in Michigan with a game of online scrabble and a Martha’s Vineyard fishing connection.

Paul Messineo of Pittsfield, New Hampshire, joined a game of Scrabble on Facebook this year. His partner was Susan Mullen of Ypsilanti, Michigan. In online chats, Susan, Michigan QOVF coordinator, learned that Paul was a Vietnam era veteran. She said she was part of an organization that provided quilts to vets and said she would like to send him one for his service. Paul declined the generous offer, noting that he had not served in a war zone, and suggested there were people more deserving of a quilt of valor. When Susan learned that Paul’s son, Joe, was a veteran of the Iraq war, she sent him a quilt of valor and Paul a quilt of friendship.

Paul’s last name would be familiar to many Island fishermen. His sister, Janet Messineo is a well-known Island fisherman, taxidermist, and member of the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby committee. Paul was so impressed with the quilts that he put Janet in touch with Susan.

In an email sent in late July, Janet told Susan about the Saltwater Challenge, and the invitation to soldiers, both active and retired, some still recovering from battle wounds suffered in Afghanistan, to spend five healing days on the Island accompanied by family members at the invitation of the Nixon family of Chilmark, owners of the Beach Plum Inn, Menemsha Inn, and Home Port restaurant. Janet asked Susan if she would like to participate.

“My answer was an immediate, yes,” Susan said in an email to The Times. “Then I started to think about ten quilts. Would it be possible to have a QOV for each military participant? I committed to finishing two quilts.

“Sometime in the middle of August I posted a request on the Quilt of Valor Facebook page asking for eight quilts to be sent to the event by the end of September. The quilting community is a very generous one, and very quickly I had commitments for seven more. Now we had nine.

“Since I live in Michigan, I contacted the QOV Regional Coordinators for New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Martha Pouliot and Theresa Perreault were happy to receive the quilts and coordinate with the event sponsors. Theresa was also able to provide the tenth quilt.”

The quilts came from across the country: two from Michigan, two from New Hampshire, one from Massachusetts, one from Alabama, one from Colorado, one from Louisiana, one from Washington state, and one from Pennsylvania.

On Sunday evening, Bob and Sarah Nixon hosted a welcome dinner at the Beach Plum Inn for the soldiers and their family members, attended by the Menemsha charter captains who would be taking the soldiers fishing, and members of the Derby committee.

During the brief welcoming ceremonies, Ms. Perreault and Ms. Pouliot presented each of the ten visiting soldiers with a quilt. Later that evening, the women learned that there was an 11th man, Joseph Roberts, a former member of the Marines and Army reserve and a resident of Edgartown, who was among the soldiers participating in the Challenge. The women did not skip a beat.

Ms. Perreault went to her car and returned with another quilt.

As she later explained, “We alway carry an extra one because we don’t want anybody to feel left out.”

Many hands

Making a quilt is no small undertaking. Ms. Perreault of Spencer explained the process. There are QOVF coordinators in almost every state, and in some cases two coordinators. The coordinator keeps track of people and networks among small groups of quilters.

“We have an email system that we continually monitor, two or three times a day, telling national and each other what’s going on in the area,” Ms. Perreault said.

“When a particular request comes in, if I have the quilts on hand then I distribute from my particular closet, you might say, but if I have a presentation that requests more than two or there and I know I am not going to get them on time then I will put out the word.”

The quilts are the product of teamwork and affection. In a pinch, it can take one week to produce one quilt, but generally the entire process takes three to four months.

Each member of a sewing group will make a piece, or a block. They then pass that along to another sewing group that will add borders. Then it is passed on to a group that owns a long arm quilting machine where the pieces are put together. It returns to the group and a binding is added.

“Then it is washed,” she said. “The reason we do that is that it is passed through so many hands, and we want to make sure the colors don’t run when somebody gets it home. A label is added that tells how long the quilt took to make and may include the name of the group. Each quilt, when presented, is signed with the name of the recipient and the date of presentation.

Giving back

Asked why the projects are important to her, Ms. Perreault said it is a chance to give back. “A lot of these soldiers, especially the older vets, when they came back nobody said thank you,” she said.

For the younger soldiers, the quilts are sent overseas to provide some measure of comfort in a far-away war zone “It just makes me comfortable in knowing that somebody is wrapped in a quilt made back home and knows that somebody cares,” she said.

Susan Mullen, who started the quilts rolling, echoes those thoughts.

“Our son is career Army and has completed several deployments to the Middle East,” she said in an email to The Times. “While he was gone the first time 2004/2005, I was in panic mode. A parent’s worst nightmare is having a child in danger and not being able to do anything about it.

“I needed something to help me manage this time. A woman in a quilt shop introduced me to Quilts of Valor. It was exactly what I needed. Here was a way that I could be a part of what my son was going through. While I couldn’t help him directly, I could offer a small amount of comfort to his comrades.

“I made my first QOV, and then another and each one brought me comfort. I have only made about 25 quilts, others many, many more, but every quilt is filled with gratitude, respect and hope for the future. I make them to honor my son and his service, as well as the service of his grandfathers, father, uncles, cousins, etc.”

On Monday, Susan received photos of the Sunday reception in Chilmark at which the quilts were presented to the soldiers.

“This is the first time I have seen the recipient of one of my anonymous QOV’s. Usually we send them out not ever knowing who received them. I cannot describe the swelling of my heart to see two of our very best, our veterans, holding my quilts with big smiles on their faces.

“When we tell people about Quilts of Valor, their response generally contains some comment about our generosity. This community is not about altruism. Every member will tell you that he or she gets is way more than is given.”

The Quilts of Valor Foundation has currently presented over 90,000 quilts in a little less than ten years. For more information go to qovf.org.