by Suzanne Labry
Home of the Brave Quilts
Cathy Kreter, a professional longarm quilter from Riverside, California who serves as National Coordinator for the Home of the Brave Quilt Project, has no family members in the armed forces.
But she says, “I have a special spot in my heart for our servicemen and women. March Air Reserve Base is practically in my backyard, and my husband is a physician who trains military personnel in how to handle trauma in combat situations.”
For more than a decade, that “special spot” in Kreter’s heart has compelled her to donate her time, money, energy, and talent to ensuring that the families of men and women who have been killed in the line of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan are comforted in a notable way: with a quilt.
It was in 2004 when Don Beld, a quilter who specializes in 19th-century reproduction quilts, came up with the idea of making quilts for the families of military casualties. Beld had been an anti-war protester during the Vietnam War era, but, later in life, regretted the way that America had treated veterans of that war.
He did not want the families of servicemen and women lost in Iraq and Afghanistan to feel that their loved ones’ sacrifice was not appreciated by the community at large. He decided to help alleviate that sense by gifting those families with an honor quilt.
Beld, who is an expert on Civil War quilts (he co-authored the book Civil War Quilts with Pam Weeks) had the idea of copying the hospital cot-sized quilts that were made by Northern women during the Civil War for the U.S. Sanitary Commission, the precursor of the American Red Cross.
Although between 250,000 and 400,000 Sanitary Commission quilts were believed to have been made for Union soldiers during the war, today only eight of them are known to be extant, and one of them is owned by the Lincoln Memorial Shrine in Redlands, California, not far from Beld’s home.
Beld thought that copying its pattern–an X with a white center, in repeating blocks, five down and three across–in reproduction fabrics would be an appropriate way to honor fallen military personnel of today’s wars.
Beld and Kreter both belong to the Citrus Belt Quilters, a guild that draws its 200+ members from quilters in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, also known as the Inland Empire area of Southern California.
When Beld presented his idea for Home of the Brave (HOTB) Quilts to the guild, Kreter immediately got involved, helping to make the first quilts presented to families in the area who had lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beld, who travels and lectures extensively on quilts, started telling others about the project, and the effort began to attract press attention.
As word-of-mouth information on the project spread, people from outside California wanted to join the endeavor. Today, there are HOTB Quilt Projects in all 50 states and the U.S. Territories and the project has received national recognition, including the placement of a link on the official U.S. Department of Defense website for the military and their dependents.
The response–both from quilters throughout the country and from the families who have received the quilts–has been remarkable. In little more than a decade, 6,350 quilts have been delivered to 5,257 families. (Those numbers are as of writing this and change frequently.)
One of the most difficult and sensitive parts of the effort involves identifying the family members of the deceased.
“It requires a lot of detective work, and, of course we are careful to act within privacy laws,” Kreter says. “We always want the parents to receive a quilt, but if the parents are divorced, we need to make two quilts, one for each parent. Sometimes, an aunt or a grandparent raised the deceased, so they are the ones who get the quilt. In other cases, a spouse might receive the quilt. It all depends on the family situation.”
HOTB waits up to six months after a casualty is registered with the Department of Defense before attempting to identify the deceased’s family. Once that occurs, a quilt is made and delivered, along with a certificate and a condolence card. The letters of appreciation that the group has received show the deep comfort that the quilts provide their recipients.
It goes without saying that growth and success of this magnitude require a tremendous amount of behind-the-scenes organizing. Kreter fills that role. She became the State Coordinator for California in 2004 and National Coordinator in 2011.
It’s a big job. In addition to quilting approximately one-third of the HOTB quilts for California, she acts as the information clearinghouse for all of the other states, responding to questions from other state coordinators as well as family members of the deceased, preparing certificates, and maintaining a database of all HOTB quilts, for whom they were made, and other information.
She stresses, however, that HOTB is a group effort, saying, “I am just one of many coordinators, and probably hundreds of quilters throughout the U.S. who have, are, and will be making quilts to honor the families of our fallen heroes.”
When asked why, as a professional with a thriving business, she devotes so much of her spare time to the Home of the Brave Quilt Project, Kreter is quick to respond.
“I have been so fortunate in my life. I feel a need to give back, and this is how I’ve chosen to do it. I have great admiration for our armed forces and I want they and their families to know that they are appreciated. It is my personal goal to see that at least one quilt goes to every single family who has lost a loved one in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.”