The Story of the Quilt
Christmas is a hard time of year in a war zone but it’s not hard to find cheer everywhere you go; you just have to want to find it. I could use some of that right now. With everything that is going on in the world, our country faces grave peril while we fight in two warfronts, yet there is always room for love and honor.
When I stopped by the Stables to see how the Christmas decorations were coming along I had no idea that the morning
which started mostly about my own problem shifted to other people and what I found there had been hidden in plain view for so long that I was really embarrassed. I was greeted by the staff at this facility once I entered the building, now sporting a neat porch and sitting area with a giant camouflaged Santa upfront. I smiled and shook my head. This is all Gunny’s doing. The Stables was once nothing more than a large tent surrounded by sandbags and some cammo netting that when it rained the whole place turned into a muddy lake and then some. The staging area had two sides divided by plywood and the floor was also plywood so it would warp a bit when wet. I recall one trip long ago which was a bone-chilling night, as I often arrived there at dark; something that did not make me miss my time in the field. The sign above the tent’s entrance read:
CAMP STRYKER STABLES
TRANSIENT QUARTERS 24/7
Travel in Iraq is hard on the body and the mind but most of us find ways of tuning out these things. I like to watch people walk in and out. Arrivals are hectic as people coming in line up behind the luggage truck and help unload it. People bump into each other, trying to find their way around but nowadays the process is much smoother. Today I have an office only minutes away from this facility and though my traveling days are pretty much over I make it a point to visit the place during my rounds.
I figured the Stables would be decked out for the holidays and I really needed some cheering up. It wasn’t disappointed when I walked in, camera in hand, ready to get some pretty nice shots of the place. Sgt Byrd, the Liaison Officer for the 30th HBCT sat behind a dull-looking counter, writing. He looked up. I asked him what was up with the lack of decorations and he mumbled something about his boss being a bah-humbug. I grinned. That sucks, man, even I’m not that bad. The Rhino desk across the room was decorated beyond belief and no one was manning it yet. It took me a minute to convince him to walk over to the other desk and pose with all the decorations. He looked around, hesitated then stood up. I told him hey, this is for your family, how’s that?
Amazingly enough the Stables had a few people there that morning, a rare thing since thousands of people cross that threshold all day and night every day of the week but on that morning the place was quiet. I stopped by the administrator of the place, Larry Sizemore who is a Vietnam veteran and goes by Gunny. Natali Birkic is his assistant and mostly they make sure that service members are provided billeting (housing) while they wait for transport going home on leave or back to the war. TVs in the background have some live news program on. The large coffee machine at the other end of the waiting area – which is pretty much a lounge – boiled the precious liquid slowly and loudly. I grabbed a Styrofoam cup and made a bee line for the coffee only to be greeted by a sign hung over the spout:
COFFEE NOT DONE YET
I made my way down the hall lined with pictures of ceremonies and people who have expressed their gratitude for the hospitality over the years and there is barely an inch left on the wall. Gunny and Natali were in their office and as usual there was someone at the counter chatting. I snapped a picture and Gunny squinted at me and said hello. He’s nice to everyone. I don’t know anyone as cheerful as this guy and he forgave the spontaneous picture because he knows about my Corpsman past so I got the warmest welcome from him.
He asked me what was going on and I told him I needed cheering up that I had no Christmas spirit so I went out looking for it. I’m just in a bad mood right now. That led to me telling him about my mom’s passing. He got up from behind his desk and came to the door and I got swept into the main waiting area, and insisted we had to take some pictures taken together but at that point I realized that the Stables has seen many people through the same doorway over the years, many did not make it. Many stories come and go but what I learned from this visit today left me inspired…and feeling a little better.
The flag you see was given to him when the new Stables building had been built and was about to be opened for business. I didn’t want to make my visit a big deal but taking on this kindness and since the place was unusually empty like I said, I decided to stay a little longer.
I looked around for decorations and Gunny took me aside and showed me this section of his office which is in the back of the building where a conference table held a magnificent quilt. I had to smile. I had not noticed that, nor the other quilts displayed on the walls, mingling with autographed pictures of thankful soldiers or marines. He asked me if I knew about the traveling quilts exhibit and I said no. Gunny told me that the traveling quilt exhibits started because of one woman and her love for her brother who had volunteered to come to Iraq.
Don Vicars deployed to Iraq in 2005 as a police trainer for DynCorp. His sister, Kaye Vicars Hansen, worried about his safety and also thought his quarters looked a bit drab, so she made him a quilt she called Independence and a diary to go with it so that Don could write in where he had traveled with the quilt. She also intended the quilt to give comfort to others until the war is over. She wanted it to have a home; though she didn’t know where it would end up but was sure the quilt, once in her brother’s possession would go to that destination. Kaye mailed her gift November 2005 and it arrived just before Thanksgiving Day. Don who was preoccupied about finding a home for the quilt brought it along on each mission along with his security team. By Christmas Eve the team had a party in the Green Zone and they were discussing where the quilt would find its final home. One of the guys mentioned that he had heard good things about the Stables to Don who then decided they would make the trip to Victory and see what the place was about. He wrapped the quilt and the book in a special pouch and upon arriving at the Stables he met Gunny. They struck up a friendship after Don explained what he wanted to do with the quilt and the quilt has remained there ever since. Scores of people come through and many have enjoyed the warmth of the Independence quilt but the story does not end there.
The Independence quilt remains at the Stables and today was neatly folded and rested on the back of the couch. The label says it all:
Gunny talked about the plans for building the new Stables – which is another great story – but explained that some ladies from Oklahoma were spearheading a traveling quilts exhibit Thanking Our Troops God Bless America Touring Quilts to honor our troops. The quilts are designed to revive the tradition of the Civil War bedroll quilts. Each quilt represents a fallen American and those on exhibit at the Stables in Iraq are admired by many but on January 15th 2010 they will be carefully packed and shipped out to each grieving family.
There will be other quilts on display for the rest of the year. I thought I’d share this gift with you. My pictures are in my Facebook album for this post and you may view all others at the Heavenly Patchwork site.