The senior trip for many young men who graduated high school in the late 1960s was no tropical paradise like Miami Beach, but rather a hot, humid combat zone near Saigon.

Guys like C.A. Archer, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who did three tours in “Nam,” slang for Vietnam, or U.S. Marine SSgt. Steven P. Brown, an avionics specialist who earned his Purple Heart there.

The U.S. was mired in the Vietnam War for almost 11 years with more than 2.7 million Americans serving there. On average more than 17 military personnel died each day. That’s nearly 122 per week.

And a death total of 58,148.

The ceremonies are meaningful to the recipients. It’s personal, each quilt is made for the individual person. It’s wonderful when someone is recognized.

  Pine Bluff Trinity Lutheran Church Pastor Stewart Marshall, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves during the 1990s and has received a Quilt of Valor  

One stitch at a time

Although she didn’t tour ‘Nam, Air Force SSgt. Dianna Winfree of Redfield served during the Vietnam era, as did Marine Corporal Patsy Brown.

Kay Hester of Pine Bluff remembers that era well because of the strife and anti-war sentiment sweeping the nation.

“The guys didn’t really get a welcome home,” she says.

Nearly five decades later, these Southeast Arkansas women and others are working to change that by joining forces with the national nonprofit known as Quilts of Valor. The goal of the foundation is “to cover service members and veterans touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor,” according to the organization’s website.

There are 13 Arkansas groups under this organization’s umbrella, including the Pine Bluff branch, “Never Forgotten With Honor,” which is only about a year old.

Hester, the group’s leader and a founding member, says there are branches in every state, and as of June 1, they had presented 182,702 quilts to vets around the country. That’s about 1,828 per month or 637 per week.

And as of April, the Never Forgotten With Honor’s 27 members had presented handmade quilts to 50 veterans, no matter the war they served in.

Brown was one of those recipients.

Now a Pine Bluff resident, Brown says she was surprised by the quilt and left teary-eyed.

“I was very humbled and honored…I am so proud to have been in the Marine Corps and receiving a Quilt of Valor was wonderful,” she says.

Winfree was also honored with a quilt, and both she and Brown have now joined the Pine Bluff group that honored them.

Brown says, “What an honor it is for us to honor our veterans.”

Hester expresses a similar sentiment, “It’s all about the veteran.”

Sewing with honor

Winfree says she quilts with a reason. Originally, she had planned to make a quilt for Archer and one for her uncle Bobby Wofford, who served in the Navy during the Korean War.

She never got around to it before their deaths.

Winfree says, “This is where my heart is. I can’t make up for not making those quilts for them but I can make them for others. I’m very emotional about the mission of the Quilts of Valor.”

Hester has her reason as well.

“I didn’t do anything to recognize my father, U.S. Army Lt. Col. Howell O. Richardson. This is my way of honoring him, and my uncles and brothers who also served.

The Quilts of Valor Foundation has certain requirements of the red, white and blue quilts presented under their name, including size, fabric choices and more.

Hester says each quilt usually costs about $250 to make.

Between fabric selection, cutting, piecing and stitching it all together — a creative, labor-intensive process that’s often under-appreciated by the non-quilting public — it takes 50 hours to complete each one.

Of course, “The work is spread out among the group,” and the friendships the women are making are priceless, Hester says.

Each quilt is encased in a handmade pillowcase and each is marked with an embroidered label.

They often work at Hester’s quilt studio and the second Monday and Tuesday of each month at the Trinity Lutheran Church at 4200 Old Warren Rd. in Pine Bluff.

The church allows the quilters to hold their presentation services and quilt work days there at no charge.

They start working around 9 a.m. and anyone interested in checking out their group is welcome, Hester says.

Honoring our military heroes

On Saturday, May 5, the Pine Bluff chapter awarded 14 veterans with quilts, and it’s more than just handing them one, Hester says. Unless a medical emergency or other reason, the quilts are presented with a military-worthy ceremony at Trinity Lutheran Church.

The church’s Pastor, Stewart Marshall, who served in the U.S. Army Reserves during the 1990s, was honored with a quilt.

“It validated the service I committed,” he says.

“The ceremonies are meaningful to the recipients,” and Marshall adds, “It’s personal, each quilt is made for the individual person. It’s wonderful when someone is recognized.”

There is a scripted presentation, including the reading of Mary Welch’s poem, “Quilts of Valor,” the National Anthem, and the American Legion in Pine Bluff presents of the Military Colors and refreshments are served.

They also honor the nation’s MIA/POW (Missing in Action/Prisoner of War). As of May 2015, more than 1,600 who served in Vietnam remain unaccounted for.

Winfree says this includes “an empty chair and a setting for one. We’ve done it four times but not once without tears rolling down my face.”

For all the women, it’s about not forgetting the individual’s service to the country.

“You see these big guys, who served in Vietnam, with tears in their eyes…Some of them have never been welcomed home. Never even gotten a thank you,” Winfree says.

Hester says, “We thank everyone for their service during the ceremony…Their reaction touches your heart.”

For more information about joining the Quilts of Valor Pine Bluff chapter, Never Forgotten With Honor or about making a donation to the national organization that will benefit local veterans, call Kay Hester at 1(870) 536-5640 or visit qovf.org.