Quilts of Valor: ‘Giving veterans the attention they’ve long since deserved’

MARK NANCE/Sun-Gazette Pat Golla, of Catawissa, left, Bonnie and Jim Fiedler, of Bloomsburg, show off some of the dozen quilts which are made by the Columbia County Quilts of Valor for U.S. veterans. The quilts are made by volunteers with a specialized label with the veteran's name, who it is from and washing instructions.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Today the Sun-Gazette begins its seventh annual Person of the Year series. Each day will shine a spotlight on each of the finalists. On Saturday, the Sun-Gazette will name its 2017 Person of the Year.)

An ambitious new group spent the past year and a half honoring nearly 200 veterans from around the area through a shared passion — sewing.

Although she’s been sewing since she was a teenager, Bonnie Fiedler didn’t know about the national Quilts of Valor program when a new state coordinator was mustering interest in the area.

The non-profit Quilts of Valor Foundation honors war veterans for their sacrifices with a freedom quilt. The movement began in 2003 in Seaford, Delaware, and has spread nationwide, arriving in Lycoming County at the end of 2016 and making its presence known here this year with the Columbia County chapter, which is regional.

Since beginning their work, the group has honored a dozen Lycoming County veterans with quilts — nine of them this year.

There are already five nominees from the county on the list for next year, Fiedler said.

Gale Hawkes, of Williamsport, was recognized in March.

Hawkes served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam — in three branches of the military. He joined when he was 17 and retired on his birthday in 1966.

When asked where he served, he said: “It’d be easier to say where I didn’t serve … the Phillipines, Vietnam, the South Pacific, England and Norway … I’ve been through the Panama Canal five times.”

Hawkes said he’s thankful for groups like the Columbia County Quilts of Valor because honoring veterans wasn’t always so important to people.

“I was raised during the Depression where we had nothing but our own pride,” Hawkes said. “My whole generation went to war — 17 million of us. But for a long time, they weren’t honored. Especially after Vietnam. People would spit on you in the street. It’s groups like this that bring all that back and start giving veterans the attention they’ve long since deserved.”

The chapter grew out of a monthly meeting in Benton to work on making quilts, Fiedler said. They decided to make their own organization in August of 2016.

Since then, the Columbia County Quilts of Valor has expanded and made quilts for 181 veterans — and counting.

The group started with five members. It now has over a dozen, and more who aren’t members but who come to help put the quilts together.

“It’s wonderful,” Fiedler said. “Why not do something to help those who have helped us in so many ways?”

The chapter is part of a greater national organization that recognizes veterans for their military service using a shared skill. And it’s a skill that requires a lot of work.

The time it takes to make just one quilt depends on each unique pattern, but most take up to 80 hours of cutting and sewing to make just the tops, Fiedler said.

Because they are involved in the Quilts of Valor national organization, they can send the pieces to a long arm quilter to finish. “But that can take up to another 40 hours,” she said.

The count of quilts awarded in this area as of November was 181. Materials for each quilt typically cost $100.

“It is a lot of work, but I am a practical person,” Fiedler explained. “I found that I would rather make something to give to someone who would appreciate it.”

Each finished quilt is awarded to a veteran during a ceremony honoring their service. But what the Columbia County chapter has is Jim Fiedler, Bonnie’s husband.

Although he doesn’t sew himself, he works to make each event to award a quilt meaningful.

“He has a very good relationship with the veterans,” Bonnie said.

As a former history teacher, Jim has enjoyed talking to veterans about their experiences for years. Now, for the organization, he calls each veteran and gets more specific stories to make each more personal.

“And that’s been an amazing experience,” Bonnie said. “I was not a history person, but the individuals to whom we award do not take credit for what they have done. They are so quiet about those things that just make your jaw drop.”

She said they awarded a quilt to a World War II veteran who was in the third wave of the invasion of Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944.

“Stories like that get to you,” she said. “It makes you think, ‘Fella, you deserve more than a quilt,’ but it is truly rewarding to me to see people pleased that we recognize their service.”

The group has heard stories from veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and just about every conflict in between. They award quilts in Lycoming, Columbia, Montour, Northumberland, Luzerne and Schuylkill counties.