The Vietnam War era was a bad time to be a member of the United States military returning from a deployment in a war zone.
The charged political climate meant that soldiers often became the human embodiment of a war that a large percentage of Americans thought had either gone off the rails or was plain immoral.
Soldiers were spit on. They were told not to wear their uniform in public. They were not given the heroes’ welcome that was given to soldiers who’d returned from World War II or from Korea.
Nearly half a century later, a group of women in Alexandria, Minn., is doing what it can to address that historical wrong.
Together they sew handmade, one-of-a-kind quilts and give them to veterans.
The group, Honor Quilts of West Central Minnesota, has been gathering once a month for the past decade at Community Vacuum and Sewing Center in Alexandria. Each year, inspired by the Iowa-based Quilts of Valor organization, the women make more than 200 quilts and give them to veterans.
“Many of these Vietnam veterans say, ‘This is the first thing I’ve been awarded for my service,’ ” said Jean Johnson, 75, of Alexandria, who has quilted for some 30 years.
“Some of them say, ‘No, I don’t deserve this.’ I guess I do it because I think of my friends in the Vietnam era. They came home and they weren’t awarded anything. It was a sad time for those guys.”
Each gift is machine-quilted then given a hand-stitched binding, with a label that has the recipient’s name and a special message. They’re stitched in intricate patterns with long-arm sewing machines and delivered with a card thanking the veteran for their service.
The Alexandria group doesn’t give the quilts solely to Vietnam veterans, however. They’ve passed out quilts to veterans of World War II, Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan, too.
But the majority of the recipients served in Vietnam. And that’s just fine by the Alexandria quilters, who came of age during that era.
“They were not only not recognized — they’ve been shunned and ignored,” said Sandy Spartz, 69, of Osakis, Minn. “Those are the service people we feel the most kinship with, just because of the circumstances.”
The gift of a quilt achieves that perfect harmony of being both useful and symbolic.
Quilts at their most elemental are the perfect accessory for a Minnesota winter, with a fancy stitched quilt top holding in layers of warm cotton batting. At their most symbolic, however, quilts are like a big hug that a community of quilters can deliver to veterans.
“It’s something that you’ve made with your own hands,” Spartz said. “The organization calls it the highest honor a civilian can give a military person. We try to use our best skills and our best materials to come up with something that’s deserving of their sacrifice.”
When the women present the quilts to Vietnam War vets, it often triggers painful memories, reminding some of the turbulent political times and of returning home after fighting in an unpopular war. A quilt, however, is a physical talisman to remind them that what they did meant something.
“They can take a quilt and wrap it around themselves,” said Cecelia Haffner, the president of the Ladies Auxiliary at the Alexandria VFW, one of the veterans organizations that has helped the quilting group locate and contact Minnesota veterans.
“People say it just makes them feel more secure. It makes them know somebody thought of them that didn’t have to. This is theirs. You give them a piece of paper, it’s a piece of paper. This is something they can use practically every day.”