Pieces from Iraq
by Dalles Chronicle
They are making a quilt in Sherman County.
That is not particularly new; the local quilt
group is proud of the fact it has been meeting
twice a month for nine years, missing only three
meetings in all that time due to bad weather.
But this quilt is different. It isn’t for home use, or a gift for a favored child or grandchild. It isn’t made for a wall hanging, or to enter in competitions to be judged.
This is a memorial quilt, for all the women in uniform who have been killed in Iraq.
The inspiration came from Donna Jean Birtwistle, Sherman County native, high school class of 1967.
She served 22½ years in the Army and National Guard, and has been active as a veteran.
She said her own inspiration came at a banquet at the Tri-State Women’s Veterans Conference in Pendleton in April.
Birtwistle said Veterans Administration organizers had set up a long table in the middle of the banquet hall, draped in fine linen, decorated with fresh roses, and set with the finest china and crystal. There were 102 places.
But there were no chairs, no silverware, and the wine glasses were upside down.
The speaker told the veterans present that this table was set in honor of the 102 women who had been killed in Iraq.
“Our own dinner was immaterial after that,” Birtwistle said.
The event so affected her that she spent an extra day sorting her emotions out before returning to Sherman County.
Then she set out to share her experience with her friends at home.
“I fixed a table like the one we had in Pendleton,” she said. “I folded my field jacket neatly, and put my old boots by it, along with some medals and some roses. I explained to the women that a lot of times the bodies don’t come back. And the only things that the family has are just these few items.”
That’s when the group decided to make a memorial quilt.
“We did the blocks in one day,” said Birtwistle. “That’s how motivated they were: they didn’t stop for lunch; they weren’t yakking or talking about their grandkids or kids or husbands.”
Birtwistle gives all the credit to the group effort.
“This has nothing to do with my military career, which is over,” she said. “It has nothing to do about religion or politics, just honoring women who had fallen for our country.”
After trying a few designs, the group settled on a five-pointed white star that is more dynamic than regular. Stripes will carry the names of those killed in Iraq, a list that has since grown to 107, and there will be 50 stars to represent the 50 states.
There will be some extra pieces as well. One star already bears the inscription“One flag/one hand/one heart/one land/one nation/evermore.”
Another block carries an embroidered eagle.
A shooting star block will represent deaths to come, the unknown stars that have not been named.
And there will be a prose poem on the quilt’s meaning, composed by Birtwistle [See sidebar].
The group has been encouraged by the VA in Salem. A delegation from that organization will travel to Moro July 17 to meet with the group.
And there’s interest from Washington, D.C. as well.
So much so that as many members of the group as possible will travel there on Sept. 15 to present the quilt to the Women in Military Service For America Memorial at the Arlington National Cemetery.
After a time on display there, the group hopes to send the quilt on tour of military bases around the country, to bring it within reach of the families of the fallen.
Brig. General Wilma L. Vaught, USAF (Ret.), president of the memorial’s foundation, issued this statement Thursday:
“We’re grateful for the people of the community who have chosen to honor fallen women in the global war on terror in this unique way. We look forward to having it on display at the memorial, where we honor not only the fallen, but all women who have served.”
Birtwistle said she was doubtful about the reception she’d get when she talked to the memorial.
“I thought they would just hang up,” she said.
But they didn’t hang up.
“This person came on the telephone and she was really excited,” Birtwistle said.
“Then she e-mailed me and she’s a lieutenant colonel. That’s the highest rank that’s ever been on my e-mail list. But she didn’t act snobbish at all. In fact she said, ‘Right on, sister!’”
At this week’s meeting of the group at Lisa’s In Stitches quilt shop in Moro, members said a number of people and organizations have stepped forward to help the project.
“Aeroprint did the names,and they need big recognition,” said Carol McKenzie. “The only thing they’re charging us for is the materials. Actually, they had to shut down their shop in order to do this.”
All present praised Lisa Shafer of Lisa’s In Stitches, who has provided a work space, given a special discount on the fabric, and will do the quilting on her professional quilt machine.
Birtwistle also cited Delores Habberstad of Hazel Phillips Travel Service for all her help.
“We’re going to stay at the Ambassador Suites. which is a five-star hotel,” said Birtwistle. “Rooms go for $400-$500 a a night and they’re giving it to us for $85. They have done nothing but roll out the red carpet for us.”
She said the hotel has even agreed to use its van to deliver the delegation and its quilt to the memorial.
And she said Habberstad had arranged for the quilt to travel for free.
The group is soliciting donations to help defray travel expenses for the members, and an account has been set up at the Bank of Eastern Oregon in Moro.
“We’ve been very frugal with money,’ said Birtwistle. “We haven’t had a whole lot to work with, but somehow it has always been there. I don’t know how.
It’s just been that. If I needed $20, there would have been $30. And I would go to Lisa and say, ‘I don’t know if we can afford that or not. Let me go to the bank and check.’ And it would happen every time.”
The quilt project has affected those who take part as well.
“This enthusiasm has just been contagious,” said Donna Schuh. The idea you presented to us, we just ran with it,“ she said.
“We really got going,” said Genivive Arthur. “We had seven [sewing] machines, two pressers and a cutter.
In fact, it didn’t take us all day,” she said. “We were done making the stars by, what, 1:30 or 2 o’ clock?”
Birtwistle is the only member to have been in the service, but Donna Schuh has a son in the Air Force, Mary Lou Massie has three grandsons in uniform, and everyone in the group knows the Thompsons of Moro, whose grandson was injured in the war.
For many, there is a deep sense of loss.
“One who died was 18 years old and already a staff sergeant,” said Birtwistle. “That means that kid had a lot going for herself. Like a stick of dynamite, she could have done about anything in this world.”
The project has brought the sacrifice of women in uniform up close and personal for the participants.
“The men are going over there away from their jobs and families but the women are the heart of family,” said Carol McKenzie. “Many of them are single mothers. So they’re not only worrying about their children, but they’re also worrying about are they getting to the dentist on time, is somebody feeding them well, is somebody taking care of the house and walking the dog? So they really deserve some recognition.”
“I didn’t want to read the names at first,” said Penny Eakin, “because it was sad to realize that they’re not coming home and they have families and moms and dads. Then, when I read them, it told me they were really gone. It’s sort of a bittersweet project. I’m glad we’re doing it, but I’m sorry we have to.”
That drew reaction from other quilters.
“It’s sad, but it’s joyful too,” said Donna Schuh, “to know we can do something for the family.”
“It’s a little way to say thank you,” said Genivive Arthur.