Jim Kugel, Harley Hamstead, Bern Westphal, Robert Flanagan, Al Laehn and Tom Pohl

Among the veterans who received Quilts of Valor at Fountain of the Sun were, from left, Jim Kugel, Harley Hamstead, Bern Westphal, Robert Flanagan, Al Laehn and Tom Pohl.

Residents of the Fountain of the Sun retirement community in Mesa often go the extra mile to show their gratitude to military veterans.

They stage elaborate tributes on special holidays, such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day, and find other ways to honor those who served.

One of those other ways occurred

on April 24, when Fountain of the Sun residents presented 13 heroes with Quilts of Valor.

Those were part of more than 269,000 Quilts of Valor that 600 groups representing 10,000 volunteer quilters nationwide have given to active military and veterans since Delaware mom started the effort in 2003 after a dream about son, then fighting in Iraq.

The 13 quilts presented last weekend also brought to 60 the number that Fountain of the Sun has given to veterans with the help of Fountain of the Sun resident Joyce Marks, who coordinates with the quilters themselves.

Those quilters, who call themselves the Arizona Piece Makers, comprise a group of a dozen women who meet for six hours every Thursday just to make Quilts of Valor. 

Formed two years ago by Alyce Downer, who winters in San Tan Valley for six months and spends the other six in her native Michigan, Arizona Piece Makers have made 195 Quilts of Valor over the course of their weekly meetings at Chandler Heights Community Church.

It’s the least they can do for veterans and active military, said Downer, whose family has a long history of military service.

“It is an award, not charity,” stressed Downer, who organizes ceremonies for the quilts’ presentation, telling recipients at each one, “We do not know what you’ve gone through. We just want to thank you.”

Among the recipients of the Arizona Piece Makers’ quilts last weekend were three generations of military service led by 99-year-old World War II veteran H.R. Darlington – who went through a lot when he served between 1942 and 1945.

Darlington, of Queen Creek, was a World War II B17 bomber pilot who flew 35 missions between July 1944 and February 1945, dodging heavy enemy fire during raids over German fortifications, factories, supply lines and other high-value targets.

Though he has written about seeing some other bombers go down in flames during some of those stories, Darlington never lost a plane or a crew member despite unnerving enemy action both in the air and, at times, back at base.

Also receiving a Quilt of Valor were Darlington’s son-in-law, James F. Seifert, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam 1962-1966; and Darlington’s grandson, Erick N. Valdes, another Air Force veteran who served 1997-2001 in South Korea.

The other recipients included: Jim Kugel, a Vietnam War vet; Richard John Batten, a Navy veteran; Robert A. Flanagan, who retired from the Marines after 26 years of service; Air Force veteran Bruce D. Flygare, who also served in Korea.

Also honored were Vietnam veterans David France and Richard Haines; Harley Hamstad, who served aboard the USS Noah when it picked up John Glenn after he became the first American to orbit Earth in 1962.

Quilt recipients also included Allen Leahn and Thomas Pohl, two more Air Force veterans; Army veteran James Menacher and Vern Westphal, who served in both the Army and Navy.

The Piece Makers all have had some connection with the service.

Some, like Cindy Koepke of Mesa, actually served in the Army during the Vietnam War.

She joined the group as a way to make veterans, especially those who served during the Vietnam War, feel a little more valued.

“Vietnam veterans weren’t treated so well when they returned,” Koepke said. “This makes them feel more appreciated.”

Downer said the quilters who witness an award ceremony often are moved as much as the recipients.

“I get very emotional,” she said, adding the recipients themselves have different reactions.

“We will not surprise anyone because of PTSD,” Downer said, adding that some recipients have been so traumatized by war experiences that they do not want a quilt made in red, white and blue.

Even when the pandemic prevented the quilters from their weekly meetings, Downer would meet them outside the church building and give them material so that they could keep on quilting.

Downer recalled delivering quilts to a group of women veterans suffering from MST – military sexual trauma – and how moved the women were by their awards.

That fits the conclusion that Quilts of Valor Foundation founder Catherine Roberts reached as she analyzed a dream in 2003 about seeing her son hunched over in his bedroom, looking broken and demoralized.

“Then, as if viewing a movie,” Roberts writes on the foundation’s website, “I saw him in the next scene wrapped in a quilt. His whole demeanor changed from one of despair to one of hope and well-being. The quilt had made this dramatic change. The message of my dream was:  Quilts = Healing.”

That’s why Quilts of Valor are never awarded posthumously and are given only to those who may either be still healing or simply deserving.

Recipients are nominated through the Quilts of Valor Foundation’s website, qovf.org, where people also can support the group’s efforts.

Downer said that if nominees or donors jot down 66303 on their forms, the money or the request will go directly to the Arizona Piece Makers

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