Crawford resident Marty Smith does not want the sacrifices her husband Bruce made during the Vietnam War to be forgotten. Earlier this year she asked friends Janet Grigson and Diana Kuene to make him a quilt to honor that service. She wanted it to be special, to be a surprise, and she wanted it to be presented on his birthday.
Bruce Smith served in the U.S. Marines as a member of the Third Battalion, Fourth Marines, nicknamed the "Thundering Third." Like many Vietnam veterans, he struggles to talk about his experiences. He does share that he was raised in Barrie, Ontario. While he's Canadian, he calls the United States "a great, great country."
He also shares that just seven months into his first tour, he and his buddies were under fire by the North Vietnamese Army when the bunker they were in was hit by mortar fire, the resulting shrapnel pelting his body from head to foot. But he was one of the lucky ones. He survived.
Smith was awarded three Purple Hearts, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Good Conduct Medal for "honorable and faithful service." In addition to the memory, he still carries much of that shrapnel under his skin and the scars on the surface.
Bruce is a tall, burly and strikingly handsome man. He prefers to stand, because it hurts to sit. His ball cap, which he never wears indoors out of respect, bears the insignia of the Thundering Third. He relies on a walking stick presented to him by the Eagle Cane Project and made by members of the Grand Valley and Black Canyon Wood Carvers. The handle is a hand-carved, hand-painted bald eagle, the symbol of America's freedom. The walking sticks are presented as a sign of respect, honor and sacrifice for disabled American veterans.
Kuene and Grigson, both experienced quilters, met through Marty, who got them together because she knew they had a great deal in common. She also knew she wanted them to work together to make Bruce's quilt.
In searching online for ideas, Grigson came upon Quilts of Valor, a foundation began in 2003 to make quilts to honor veterans struggling with the consequences of serving in the Iraq war, according to the organization's website. The organization soon grew to honor all veterans. QOV volunteers donate time and materials to create the quilts, which represent comfort and healing and are considered the civilian equivalent of the Purple Heart.
Grigson said she found several step-by-step instruction videos on YouTube. For a quilt to be a Quilt of Valor, guidelines must be followed, and tied quilts, which they originally considered, don't qualify. Quilting can be done by hand or machine, and high-quality quilt-weight fabric should be used. The label should state who the quilt is being presented to, the date and place of the presentation, and the names of the makers. (Playing John Phillips Sousa music while making the quilts is optional.)
Last spring, with Bruce's July 11 birthday fast approaching, the two new friends set up shop in Wild Country Keepsakes, Grigson's downtown Crawford family business. They carefully followed instructions for the top, back, and binding, while documenting their progress. "It was a big conversation throughout the entire quilt," said Kuene.
Grigson recalls working "feverishly" to finish the quilt in time for Bruce's birthday on July 11. All the while Bruce was unaware that anything was going on. But as the date approached, Marty landed in the hospital and July 11 came and went.
On Aug. 3, with Marty out of the hospital, Grigson and Kuene presented Bruce with his quilt at the Smith's home, since she was housebound. He said that at first he had no idea what the fuss was all about. Upon being presented the quilt, he said, he didn't quite understand the significance. Then he saw the emblem of the U.S. Marines at the center, the pieces of patriotic material with words like "honor," "liberty," "let freedom ring" and "patriotism" surrounding it, the red, white and blue pieces, all meticulously stitched together.
Then he read the label, hand-printed by Grigson. It reads: "A Quilt of Valor is presented to Bruce Smith for your time & sacrifice as a Marine in the Vietnam War."
"I was shocked," said Smith. "I had no idea." He said that for him, the quilt doesn't only represent his service, it honors all veterans, including all who didn't come home. Receiving the quilt, he said, "meant more than anything else I've ever had."
He also understands that Kuene and Grigson put not only hard work, but a great deal of love into making the quilt. "I don't think you can create a quilt without putting a little bit of yourself into it," said Grigson.
"It's a beautiful, beautiful quilt," said Marty in a recent phone conversation. She and Bruce consider it a treasured family heirloom to be handed down to their children after they are gone.
Something else makes this a very special quilt lies in the reason Marty was in the hospital on July 11, which is also their wedding anniversary. During her weeks-long stay at the hospital she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and is now at home in hospice care. She wanted the quilt to be presented while she was still alive.
"I always thought she'd outlive me," said Bruce, leaning on his walking stick, his ball cap in hand. "The quilt is part of what makes everything okay."