Most of you out there were not aware that for the last year, we have been planning to honor the prisoners of war who were held captive at the Vietnam Hanoi Hilton and the Son Tay Raiders, a special Army Ranger group who tried to rescue the prisoners. It would be a surprise at their Reunion. When I was approached about doing this, my first question is always how many veterans – that wasn’t what I said. My first words were, “We would be honored.” I did explain to them that I would have to have all of their names as each quilt would be made for them. My contact, Joe Milligan, was perfect. He fed me the names and bios and then the work began.
When the bios started coming in, we would read them all and just be in ah at the time each one had spent in captivity. Every time I would tell someone what we were doing they would say that it gave them chills.
Every quilt to me needed to be our best work and I basically pushed all of our volunteers to do their best even though they do good all the time. I felt that they needed that extra special quilt. Often my heart hurt thinking about what they had been through. Our QOH group went out of the box and the quilts were truly one of a kind beautiful. We shipped the quilts two weeks in advance to be sure that they got to New Orleans.
The afternoon of the event we arrived early so we could get the quilts into the banquet room without anyone noticing. Cyndy, who came along to record the event on video, got her equipment set up. We had brought a change of clothes so we could blend in at dinner. One hour before the event the lobby started filling with handsome gray haired men, most in suit jackets and women in beautiful gowns. We had a little room right off the ballroom that we could sit down and relax and wait. The problem was, most of us were nervous. We had been warned that these men were different, very private and they liked just getting together, no outsiders, so we were like, oh no, this could go belly up.
When it was time for dinner, we sat in the back of the room all together as to not bring notice. We had southern food for dinner – glazed pork chop, sweet potatoes and greens and for desert a choice of bread pudding or pecan pie. Dinner went smoothly and one by one the crew slipped out to change. Then came Bob to bring me up to the front.
They had already warned me that there wasn’t a program so don’t speak or they would get bored and possibly leave the room. All of a sudden a calm came over me and I knew it would be alright. I began my little talk and luckily they stayed with me especially when I said you all out rank me in this room but I am going to play Sergeant tonight and they laughed. Carl went to the podium to call out the names, 5 POWs at a time in alpha order. When the first 5 came up they just seemed so happy. I had them unfold altogether and show the crowd. The room filled with gasps – “OMG look at those quilts,” and we were off and running. There were over 200 people in the room and so many were standing trying to see and yelling ‘look at that’. All had their phones out taking pictures. I darn near got trampled by some of the wives.
We had the quilts stacked in alpha order with the assembly line handing them to my brother Lou who would call out the name again and I would shake their hand as I went down the line. So many looked me straight in the eye, thanked me and I would reply that it is OUR honor. I’m thinking to myself, these men are heroes and I’m lucky enough to be in the same room let alone be hugged and kissed by them. It was so worth coming here and to be able to see these men, some frail, some strong, but the spirit they had was unbelievable. When we had given to the last veteran, Flo went out and got a quilt for Maryann, Joe’s wife, who had been an Air Force nurse in Vietnam – she had the strongest handshake.
The whole room was so crazy with noise. The crew gathered in front of the podium as the whole room clapped and yelled then they all started coming up in line hugging each one of us, shaking our hands, and thanking us. Some of the crew left the room they got so emotional. The whole time we were awarding quilts I didn’t see tears but when they walked away, the tears began. One lady said we made a 4 Star General cry like a baby.
When we got in the car I asked all 8 of be quiet until we got on the freeway. This crew can be one loud bunch. As soon as the car got on the freeway ramp, I said, “Ok guys, hit it, you can talk.” They all started at once telling me what they had heard, what people said to them. We shared so many stories and Cyndy, our photographer, was blown away. She said, “Gail, I’ve done many groups but the emotion was unbelievable. I had no idea. Thank you for asking me.” When we got back to the house, we all sat around the table and I asked them to please write down three things someone said to them or of something they experienced.
Carl wrote: ‘I can’t believe that you have done all of this for us.’ ‘What did we do to receive this gift?’ From a wife to Carl – ‘we have been to several of these POW reunions and this is the most wonderful thing that has been done for my husband and his comrades. The quilts are just beautiful and so meaningful. Thank you, thank you.’
Debbie wrote: ‘You came all the way from California to do this?’ ‘How did you find the cases? They are perfect.’ ‘This is the best thing that ever happened to me.’ Red vest lady – ‘this means the world to my husband.’
Flo wrote: ‘I can’t believe all the work you did.’ ‘This is the most wonderful gift I have ever received and I have received a lot but this is the most wonderful.’ Flo also wrote ‘we got hug after hug from the POWs and their wives. I heard OH’s and Ahs as each quilt came out. The crowd was so very enthusiastic; I’ve never seen a presentation become so excited.
Lou wrote: ‘No one has ever done anything like this for us. Thank you.’ ‘All these quilts are different and so beautiful. Thank you.’ The quilts are so beautiful and one of a kind; you can feel the love in each one.’ I know how much work goes into quilts and they are beautiful.’ ‘Can’t believe you did this.’
Toni wrote: ‘I will cherish this forever.’ ‘I can leave this for my children and grandchildren; it’s like an heirloom and his wife replied, treasured heirloom.’
Rita wrote: ‘You ladies are so amazing for what you did for our group. It is an honor to meet all of you and be able to thank you for your work.’ Rita said, imagine they were honored to meet us and it was us honored to meet them.
Wish I could tell you how much this means to me. I can’t thank you enough, tears rolling down his face and I got a big hug. Then a wife came running up to me and said those are amazing quilts, thank you but I gotta get back so I don’t miss any. I just want to see them all.
Among the POWs there was a Calaveras born local boy who graduated from Calaveras High. When he came up to me he said he couldn’t believe you all are from Valley Springs. We took pictures with him and I asked if we could send it to our local news. He said sure, you will put me on the map.
This was an experience of a lifetime for all who got to be a part of it. I hope through the pictures and video you will all feel a part of it. We could not have completed what we did without each one of you. To the long hours everyone put in, you all be proud – Quilts of Honor done good!
Miss Betty, they went nuts over the cases and kept asking how we did it. One guy even said he would have just loved the case and then we gave him a quilt that is over the top.
I know we will never forget the feeling in the room that night. One POW said he could feel the love in the quilt and could feel the love in the room.
I can’t thank the crew or our Quilts of Honor family enough for all your work you continued to do. You make me proud and I am blessed to be able to lead you. The crew will be glad to get home but I know they feel blessed to have been a part of such an honored event.
Stay tuned as we continue to heal one at a time.