Over a hundred veterans took their seats in the Salem Armory Auditorium on Friday afternoon. Piled in front of them were red, white, and blue quilts—each with a unique geometric pattern of patriotic symbols.
In a ceremony lasting more than an hour, each veteran was recognized by name, branch, time served – up to the hour in one case – and, as the quilt was draped around them, an outstretched hand and a message:
“On behalf of the Quilts of Valor Foundation, thank you for your service.”
The Veterans Day event was the first of its kind in Salem and was the result of over a year of planning and craftsmanship by a team of volunteer quilters.
Leading the charge were Mary Williams and her husband, Jeff, of Salem. Her son serves as an officer in the US Marine Corps at Quantico, Virginia.
“Veterans sometimes go through Veterans Day, and they go to Applebee’s and they get a free dinner, or they watch a parade from afar, but nobody really points it out to them,” Williams said. “To be a veteran getting a quilt in front of all your comrades on Veterans Day and just being thanked and welcomed home – just amazing.”
Williams, who grew up on military bases, relocated to Salem and opened Will-n-Bee’z Quilt and Coffee Shoppe in 2017. Upon learning that there were no local groups participating in the national Quilts of Valor Foundation, she decided to start one.
The next year she was one of a few founding members of the Salem Star Valor Quilters of Oregon, which now has more than 40 quilters.
The Veterans Day event partnered with a Portland group, the Northwest Quilters, to create over a hundred quilts for the honored guests.
Williams said her goal is to share the warmth that a quilt provides with veterans who may feel alone or unseen.
“Anyone who’s had a good grandma’s quilt knows how cozy and warm and comforting a quilt can be,” she said. “It just tells me love.”
One of the recipients, Jesus “Monty” Montes, an Army Cavalryman who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, said he couldn’t thank the volunteers enough for the work they put into the ceremony. He said honoring women who have served and those with dementia is particularly powerful.
“A lot of people think, ‘Oh, they just do quilts,’ but it means a lot to these veterans,” Montes said. “Some of them can’t speak, but they feel you’re there when you touch their hand, they let you know. Or a grin or a smile. That’s all it takes.”
Many of the contestants served in Vietnam, and the handful who served during World War II received a standing ovation.
Former Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, who served in the US Marine Corps, was the first to be awarded a blanket in the state colors of navy blue and gold.
“They’re just a remarkable group of people,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for everyone in the military.”
As governor, he made trips to Afghanistan and Iraq to visit troops, including Anita Stratton, who still works in public affairs for the National Guard.
She described the awards as emotional.
“If they say it’s to keep you warm, it definitely will,” she said of the quilt. “And it reminds me of the love these ladies put into it and the effort and time and that’s very much appreciated.”
She said she was particularly pleased with the recognition of Vietnam veterans.
Her friend Jim Martichuski, an Army National Guard veteran, agreed.
“The Vietnam veterans were not treated well when they came home. Just saying ‘thank you, welcome home’ to them right now means more to them than you could ever write in a newspaper,” he said.
Williams said the group has not yet decided whether the event will go on an annual basis, although they have ambitions to do so. She hopes to expand the program by reaching more veterans.
“The only way we can do that is to spread the word,” she said. “We are very happy about it.”
Contact reporter Abbey McDonald: [email protected] or 503-704-0355.
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