Trio on mission to keep U.S. soldiers in Iraq warm

Monday, January 5, 2004

REPUBLIC, Mo. -- Forget about the stitching machine that lines the length of her family room wall.

Never mind the two sewing machines that sit side by side or the piles of fabric squares scattered from one side of her house to the other.

Maggie Jones still considers herself and her two closest friends quilting "greenhorns" -- combined total experience: two years, four months.

But since October, Jones, Marianne Carter and Jackie Harrell have created and mailed 40 multicolored blankets to U.S. soldiers in Iraq, many of whom are strangers to the trio.

Their mission, which they call Quilts With Love, began with a simple request from Deron, Maggie's 30-year-old son.

Since February, the Army sergeant has been deployed to Iraq. After he sent word to his wife in Germany about the cold Iraq nights, Maggie Jones thought about buying a blanket for her son from a nearby Wal-Mart. But a store-bought quilt didn't seem like enough.

"It just needed a little more Mom in it," Jones said.

What started as a goal to finish two quilts by Nov. 1 has turned into a one-house stitching and sewing factory that uses swatches and squares sent in from around the country.

"Two quilts didn't sound bad," Carter said. "Forty is mind-boggling."

Mind-boggling, but true.

Four to six hours a day

The three longtime friends quilt on average between four and six hours a day, taking breaks for coffee and for Carter's occasional cigarette.

Jones joined an Internet quilting club two years ago, when she first learned how to make the blankets herself. Online quilting lessons led her to connect with some of the 41 members of the QBE Quilt Club.

She communicates with the other members via e-mail and phone calls, and has met several of her new friends who have helped on her quilting quest.

Since September, Jones has received more than 200 quilting squares at her Republic home, which has become the headquarters for Quilts With Love.

Each quilt takes 28 squares to make.

Churches have sent materials, and friends and veterans of past wars have donated money and materials -- all wanting to become part of the effort to provide support for the military troops who continue to be part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"It really seemed like a way that we could send a little bit of home over to these servicemen and women," said Harrell, who had never quilted before this project began. "They have given a lot."

Since October, Jones has shipped 21 quilts to her son, who in turn, passes the quilts out to members of his unit.

Quilts are also made for soldiers who are friends and loved ones of other members of the online quilting club.

Since each package must be sent to a specific soldier, Jones depends on e-mails from her friends to know who needs quilts to keep warm at night.

Weeks to arrive

Each shipment of five quilts costs between $18 and $22 to mail to Iraq and takes anywhere from two weeks to a month to arrive.

Jones has also shipped two quilts to Deron's sons -- Tyler, 4, and Wyatt, 2. Those blankets -- or "Daddy quilts" -- include a family photo on the back to remind the two small boys of their father.

Jones said Tyler struggles with Deron's being away, constantly asking why his dad left his family behind. She hopes the quilt will serve as a reminder that Deron may soon be home.

"They've told us that he could be home in February," Jones said while crossing her fingers on both hands. "But like Deron's wife says, I'll believe it when I see him get off that plane."

The war has been tough on Jones, who stopped watching the news months ago. Her son's unit has remained close to Baghdad, where much of the fighting still continues. Spending time with her friends quilting has kept her mind occupied as she counts down the days until her son can be reunited with his family in Germany.

The three women spend their days quilting while easy-listening music plays on stereo speakers in what used to be Maggie's family room.

Each carries out different duties in the quilt-making operation. But the time together is about more than making quilts. It's a means of support.

Jones struggles with her son being at war. Carter, who calls the quilting operation "my Rock of Gibraltar," fights with multiple sclerosis. Harrell cares for a husband who is ill.

"We laugh together, and we cry together," said Jones, who two years ago was diagnosed with stage 4 melanoma. "But being together is what keeps this from being work." Today, doctors can't locate the cancer that they believed would take Jones' life.

"Praise God I'm still here," she said. "I believe I'm here for a reason."

And for now, part of that reason includes quilting.

Even if her son returns home in February, Jones says her home-based quilt-making effort won't stop.

As long as there are American troops away from home, she believes, there are quilts to be made.

"By loving other people," she said, "we can love ourselves that much more."

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