CEDAR RAPIDS — Bernadion “Bee” Coy never expected to be thanked for her military service, mostly because she never talked much about her World War II days with the Women’s Army Corps, the former women’s branch of the U.S. Army.
When recognition finally did come in 2014 — in the form of a quilt presented through the Iowa-based Quilts of Valor Foundation — Coy, 92, of Cedar Rapids, says she was moved to tears.
“I didn’t know anything about getting a quilt because I never told anyone I was in the service,” Coy said. “I was shocked. I cried. I had never had any kind of recognition.”
Coy’s gift was quilted by Elayne Gassett, Coy’s neighbor in the Garnett Place retirement community in Cedar Rapids. Gassett, at the time, was volunteering for Quilts of Valor, a Winterset-based nonprofit group established in 2003 to honor veterans for their service. To date, the national organization has awarded nearly 140,000 quilts.
Soon thereafter, Gassett, 73, decided to take it up a notch and formed a local Quilts of Valor chapter called the Freedom Stitchers of Iowa.
Since being established on June 25, 2015, Freedom Stitchers — now 77 members strong — has awarded more than 90 quilts and is currently working on its 159th quilt to be given away in the future.
Members of the group, mostly women from the Cedar Rapids area, meet once per month to make quilts, discuss potential donors or exchange fabrics. Quilts are awarded throughout the year, but also during a quarterly program where a handful of veterans are honored at once. The latest giveaway — during which 11 Quilts of Valor were presented — took place June 18 in the Cedar Memorial Westside Chapel in Cedar Rapids. Gassett described it as “an emotional event.”
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“The heart is involved,” she said. “How humbling it is to stand in front of a group of veterans knowing if they had not done what they did, we would not be standing here.”
For some veterans, like Coy, receiving a quilt marks the first time they have been honored for their service, said Ann Rehbein, executive director for the Quilts of Valor Foundation, which now boasts about 7,000 volunteer quiltmakers and other contributors.
She said family members and friends of veterans can submit nominations to the organization through its website www.qovf.org.
“It’s surprising to get a Quilt of Valor, because I laid in holes of water, mud, slop (in Vietnam),” said U.S. Army Veteran Harry David Holland, 64, of Cedar Rapids. “I just wanted to say, ‘Does anyone know I’m over here?’ ”
Holland said he returned home from Vietnam in 1971 and “had to dodge spitballs.” The quilt was a much-appreciated gift.
Ralph Osenbaugh, 71, of Cedar Rapids, received his quilt in 2013. The Vietnam veteran described the moment as “tremendous.”
“I’m not usually at a loss for words, and I was. It just wowed me,” he said. “Here’s something really positive I had never heard of before and all of a sudden I’m a part of it.”
Today, Osenbaugh serves as the Eastern Iowa coordinator for Quilts of Valor.
As the Freedom Stitchers celebrate their one-year anniversary, Gassett says the group is always interested in finding new members and has no problem teaching those who may be less skilled in the art of quilting. Anyone interested in getting involved can call Gassett at (319) 551-4492.
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During monthly gatherings, held at Gassett’s home, members are welcome to come and go throughout the day. During the most recent meeting, held Thursday, June 23, a flurry of activity was noted as quilts were dropped off, fabric was picked up and several members worked together on a quilt — pinning its top to the batting and backing.
Gassett said it’s not uncommon for her six sewing machines and longarm machine to be humming at a brisk pace during the gatherings. Oftentimes, there’s a knock at the door.
“They don’t always tell me if they’re working on a quilt,” Gassett said. “Sometimes, they show up at my door with two or three quilts they’ve made and I’ll have no idea.”
Gassett also said she and her fellow quilters sometimes don’t know for whom their quilts are being made. But that matters not.
“We truly honor our veterans,” she said, adding a story conveyed to her by one of the quilt recipients that serves as continuous motivation.
Pointing to the quilt, the veteran told Gassett: “When we came home we didn’t have a brass band. This is our brass band.”
Established in 2003 in Winterset the Quilts of Valor Foundation is a volunteer-driven nonprofit organization through which quilts are presented to veterans. Nearly 140,000 have been awarded to date. In 2015, the Freedom Stitchers of Iowa was established as a Cedar Rapids chapter of the national organization. Here is how you can get involved in the effort: