VASHON ISLAND, WA--The story of 100 quilts begins with two hands and one tragic tale.

The hands belong to Sue Nebeker.

The tale belongs to a stranger from east of the mountains, Ken Dennis, a 22-year-old combat rifleman who came home from Iraq a troubled soul. "I just don't want to see 23 after all this," he told his parents.

Nebeker, 53, read the story of the young Marine -- abandoned by his wife, haunted by scenes of war -- in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Aug. 13. Dennis hanged himself March 21, exactly one year after the first combat Marine deaths in Iraq. "It almost killed me, it made me so sad -- for someone not even 23 to feel such despair, such hopelessness," Nebeker said.

She cried. She railed. She lay awake at night. And then she took action -- action that comes full circle today when Nebeker and husband Clark deliver 100 red, white and blue quilts to Fort Lewis' Madigan Hospital. Officers there will distribute the quilts to injured soldiers returned from Iraq.

Call them crazy quilts. Call her obsessed. Her quilting friends do as they gather round the dining room table in her airy home overlooking Tramp Harbor.

She's determined, they say. Driven. First she caught them up in the story of the rifleman, fired up their passions, then put them to work.

"We have to do this! Have to do this!" said Katie Plucinski, 62, retired from The Boeing Co. "It's a personal way to reach out to these young people."

"Our young people," said Joyce O'Connor-Magee, 47, pastor at Vashon Island United Methodist Church.

"Our kids!" said Barbara Jansen, 65, also retired from Boeing.

"Our grandkids!" chimed in several.

Nebeker's first action was to call military hospitals to ask how she could volunteer.

Nebeker, former co-owner of a Seattle social-service agency and now partner in a long-arm quilting service, has multiple sclerosis, tires easily and has weakness in her legs. "It turns out I'm useless, except I can quilt," she said. She thought of the warmth, physical and emotional, quilts might bring to the war-wounded, who arrive in hospitals with nothing but pajamas and robes.

What she didn't think of, at first, were the sheer numbers of soldiers injured in Iraq.

Although statistics on war dead -- 1,067 as of yesterday -- are almost daily news, the number of injured is not. The latest toll is 7,531 Iraq coalition soldiers wounded in action.

And at Madigan Hospital, an average 10 inpatient soldiers arrive each week.

That's a lot of quilts.

In no time, Nebeker was calling in the girlfriends, putting up posters all over the island, activating phone trees and organizing a quilt-a-thon. The women -- coupon-clipping bargain hunters -- hit fabric stores all over the Puget Sound area, buying up clearance red, white and blue fabrics left over from the Fourth of July.

"My husband gave me a Visa card and tried not to twitch every time I charged something," said Nebeker, who would heat up the plastic with more than $1,000 debt by the project's end.

On Sept. 10-11, more than 80 people gathered at the island's Methodist church and set to work -- some on old, broken-down machines Nebeker's husband, another Boeing retiree, had refurbished.

It was Noah's Ark of volunteers. There were old and young, male and female, abled and disabled, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, and everything in between.

"You could go out in the parking lot and see the Nader car parked next to the Bush car next to the Kerry car," said Nebeker.

Organizers asked everyone to leave their politics at the door. And in the busy-ness of needles and thread, squares and batting, ironing and tying, one man's death became community salve for a war that's dividing a nation.

"It was the most amazing thing. The way people were together, and all they were thinking about was making the best possible quilt they could," said Nebeker.

Some couldn't sew, so they ironed. Some couldn't iron -- so they bought food for everyone.

One young woman came into the church and handed Nebeker a $20 bill. "She said she'd been crying ever since she heard about the quilt-a-thon. She said, 'I've just been called up.' All I could think is, 'Man, I hope I'm not making a quilt for you,' " Nebeker said.

On the evening of Sept. 11 -- three years after the World Trade Center towers tumbled in New York City -- the stitching ceased, and 85 quilts were stacked on tables ready for Nebeker to machine stitch, pack up and take to Fort Lewis. Another 15 quilts would trickle in later.

There were two sizes of quilts: small ones for wheelchairs, large ones for stretchers.

The reds were rust to rouge, and the patterns emblazoned with stripes and stars and phrases: "Land of the free" and "We the people." Some had appliques of Uncle Sam, eagles, flags. Others exploded in red, white and blue fireworks -- complete with sparkles.

On the back of each was a label that reads: "You are our hero. Thank you! The people of Vashon Island, Washington."

This week, as Nebeker's circle of friends looked at them one last time before the trip south, they grew quiet. Yes, they said, they will do another quilt-a-thon. How could they not?

"There is so much love ..." Plucinski said. "... in every stitch," said Nebeker.

"A little prayer said over every one of them," O'Connor-Magee said.

~SeattlePI, October 8, 2004
M.L.Lyke, Reporter

 
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