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April 04, 2007   Email to Friend 

Providing Comfort
Darryal Ray

It's a name that had been staring Jo Reid in the face for more than three years -- Army Pvt. Kelley S. Prewett, killed in action by enemy fire in Iraq on April 6, 2003.

But on a summerlike day last fall, Reid was finally able to begin putting the 24-year-old private to rest.

"I finally found his mother!" exclaimed Reid, a retired nurse and wife of a retired Army colonel. "I've been looking for him since I started, and I found his mother today. Some days, I can be on the phone all day long and not find anybody. The next day, I'll find two or three in the same day. It goes like that sometimes."

The discovery of Prewett's mother meant that Reid, state coordinator of the Home of the Brave Quilt Project, could soon mark him off her list of 65 Alabama soldiers killed in Afghanistan or Iraq. It is the aim of the Home of the Brave Quilt Project to provide the families of America's soldiers some measure of comfort by making a commemorative Civil War quilt for each fallen soldier's next of kin.

"Sure, we could send money, or we could send a thank-you card to them, but quilts mean more," said Reid, whose Jackson County home near Scottsboro is filled with quilts, blocks and bolts of fabric. "They last longer, and they're something you can hold on to. There are websites where you can send a note to the family, and the family can go online and read it. That's all well and fine, but that's not something they can hold in their hands. This is something they can hold, something they can have for a long time."

The 48-by-84-inch quilts are replicas of those stitched during the Civil War by Northern women for the U.S. Sanitary Commission (a forerunner of the Red Cross), which gave them to soldiers to use as bedrolls. Some soldiers were buried in them due to a shortage of wood for coffins. The quilts feature a space on each block for someone -- whether or not they knew the fallen soldier -- to sign their name.

"We don't care who it's signed by," said Reid. "It's like getting a hug from that person. It means more to the families when they see that there are all kinds of people who want to be sure they know that somebody cares -- not just the quilter, not just me, but a lot of people."

Don Beld, a California quilter and historian who wanted to show his gratitude for the soldiers' supreme sacrifice, began the project. Today, all but four states have state coordinators such as Reid, who came aboard when Alabama already had 40 casualties. She's been trying to catch up ever since.

Reid is also membership chairman for the Tennessee Valley Quilters Association, which has 30 quilt guilds from throughout northern Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. "We have 1,242 members, and all of those are working on this project for Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia," said Reid.

Some of those quilters will hand-stitch the entire quilt; others will only do a few blocks before sending them on to Reid to be assembled into quilts. Still, others are machine-stitched using a long-arm machine.

"I think it's a great project," said Carolyn Buckner, who has personally stitched about 10 blocks for the project as a member of the Piece By Piece Quilt Guild and the Star Stitchers Quilt Guild in Jackson County. "I think we need to recognize the families for their loss. It doesn't matter if you're for the war or against it, it's a project that anybody should do."

Reid, although a veteran quilter, seldom does any quilting herself. "Most of my work is detective work in finding the families, and making sure these get delivered," said Reid. "I don't actually make many of the quilts. I maybe will put a top together and take them to somebody to have them quilted. It would be easier to just stitch, but somebody has to do this end.

"We don't ask anybody to hand quilt them," said Reid. "We don't care how they quilt it -- just so they get quilted. And we hope the families will use them."

Reid tells of receiving a note from one grateful widow who said her daughter was going to take the quilt to school to tell the class about her daddy. "Whenever I talk to a family, I tell them, 'Please use these quilts. They're washable, dryable. Don't think they are a fragile item that you just have to hang up,'" said Reid.

When she delivered one to the sister of one fallen soldier in Cullman County, Reid learned that the sister's newborn son was named after her brother. "I told her, 'You need to put that little boy down on this quilt, and let him crawl all over it,'" said Reid. "'It's his namesake!'"

She urged the ailing father of another soldier to take the quilt with him to his dialysis treatments "so he can tell other people about his son."

"We hope the families are using them," said Reid, "but they can do whatever they want with them." Thus far, Reid has delivered 35 quilts out of 65 Alabama casualties. Progress in tracking down next of kin is often slow, hampered by the Privacy Act and the tendency of military families to move often.

Soldiers are tracked by their hometown of record -- not a sure-fire method since some will list the site of their enlistment as the hometown. "My husband, Jim, is Canadian and was drafted out of Erie, Pa., during Vietnam," she said. "He had no family there. So if this type thing happened to him and somebody was trying to find his family, they never would've found him because his family is all in Canada."

Nationally, Reid guesses that Home of the Brave quilts have been delivered to families of about 80 percent of the 2,952 U.S. casualties since Operation Enduring Freedom began in 2001.

"I think that's pretty good," said Reid. "It's a never-ending thing. I may send out three or four this week, but I may get three or four more names. It's like I'm running in place. "You may never get caught up, but you have to keep trying. I'm not going to stop until I've exhausted all efforts to find every family even when the war is over. We don't stop just because the war ends. We've got to keep going until we find them all."

______________________________ Editor's Note: If you know how to contact the family of a soldier killed from Alabama, Georgia or Tennessee, call Jo Reid at (256) 259-2442 or email her at joreid@charter.net. For more information on the Home of the Brave Quilt Project, visit www.homeofthebravequilts.org.


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