Sunday, 10 November 2013

Sunday - the 2nd Anniversary

It dawned on me the other day that there was an anniversary coming up.  Would you believe that it is two years ago today that the first boxes containing quilts and laundry bags were sent off on their way to the original Aussie Hero in Tarin Kot!

That thought prompted me to look back and revisit the beginnings of Aussie Heroes and it also made me realise that there are a lot of people who probably do not know the story behind the beginning of Aussie Heroes.

So how did it start?   I occasionally give presentations about Aussie Heroes to community groups and I always start by telling them the history of Aussie Heroes, but if you are a new follower to Aussie Heroes you might not know the story.  Well maybe two years on from posting the first boxes it is a good time to re-tell the story. Such a lot has happened in that time!


What is Aussie Heroes all about?

I suppose I should start by telling you a little about myself.  Have a giggle - you won't be able to tell but this is me, aged 19, on Bivouac for my Junior Officer Introductory Course!


I joined the Air Force when I was 19 years old and spent seven and a half years as an air traffic controller.  Then I transferred to the Navy, first as a communications officer, and then as an admin officer.  A particularly handsome air force engineer caught my eye and I married my husband David whilst we were both in the services.  


I stayed in the navy until just after our twin sons were born when I opted to become a full time mum.  That was 17 years ago. 
(They would kill me if they knew I posted this pic!!!  Hee Hee)


So, how does a stay at home Mum end up starting an online group that sends quilts and laundry bags to the troops? 

There are a few reasons.  One day I heard about an Aussie soldier in a rehab hospital who was wounded in Afghanistan.  Whilst in the hospital in Germany, he was given a red, white and blue Hero Quilt by the Americans so that he would not be the only man in the ward without a quilt.   I was deeply touched by the generosity of the Americans but was ashamed that there was nothing from his own country for him.  One thing that delights me as I look back over the last two years is the fact that I now know who that Wounded Warrior is.  His wife has since made contact with me and we gave him one of our quilts to road test and he loves it.  She tells me she would find him in the lounge last summer when it was 40C and he would be snoozing under his quilt with the aircon turned down to 18C.  Recently they visited me for afternoon tea so they could see a quilt made for a friend of theirs.  They told me that our Aussie Hero Quilt is always out and it always being used.  


Additionally, although I was only young at the time, I have always felt ashamed of the way our Vietnam Vets were treated when they came home.  One of my quilt recipients told me that he had friends who wished they had never come back to Australia because of the way they were treated.  That is why Aussie Heroes Motto is 

“We care about the people, not the politics or the mission.”

The third reason is that I felt we, the Australian public, need to look after our troops better.  Who do we call on when there is a natural disaster?  Be it fire, flood or earthquake?  We call on the Defence Force.  And no matter when it is they come, or they go, where ever they are needed.  There had to be a way to say thank you.

At the same time I had been searching for a community project I could get involved with.  I have a strong belief that if everyone did something to give back, no matter how small, the community, the world, would be a better place.  Personally, I felt a real need to do something, to give back.  As I said, I was looking for an organization I could get involved with.  I had not expected to start one!


Through a blog I came across a fellow who was deployed to Afghanistan.  I sat and looked at my computer and just thought “I can sit here,  do nothing and move on,  or I can do something and give back to him and his mates”.  I asked if there was something that I could make that would make his deployment easier and the word came back that individual laundry bags would be great.  Quilts would also be good if we could manage them. 

Who would have thought that laundry bags would become such a hugely appreciated gift? Little did I, or any of us, know. 

I convinced my quilt group, The Gumnut Quilters, to help me and together we made fifteen laundry bags, one for each member of his team and  twenty five quilts.  The extra quilts were given to whoever the fellow thought might benefit from some extra mail.   



You can read all about the fun we had packing those boxes here if you wish.  All in all we posted off 15 laundry bags, 25 quilts and a bunch of Christmas Care packages.  


Those first boxes were posted off on the 10th of November 2011.    They arrived in dribs and drabs right up until Christmas.

As you can imagine the response was humbling.  Here is some of their feedback.

Please let the ladies know of the joy that they have only just started to deliver. 

Everyone is rapt with the bags. I am very much looking forward to receiving a quilt, it will be loved and have quite a few more military adventures before I retire. I plan for it to go where ever I go from now on.

Thank you so much for all the quilts, personalized laundry bags and goodies. We’re all very grateful for the time and effort put into them. The snow is starting to appear in the distance and as it increases two things become extremely important; warm beds and clean, dry laundry, so you’ve hit the nail on the head there. Thanks again.

The snow is only about sixty km away, it is starting to get very cold. I will be tucked up in bed under one of your quilts tonight! Have a great day sewing tomorrow and know that there is now a very well looked after team of soldiers

Many thanks for the fantastic laundry bag. I’ve been clothe-less two separate times due to laundry mix ups, but I have a feeling that’s a thing of the past thanks to you. Keep up the good work.

The fifteen laundry bags we sent off all went to members of the First Aussie Hero's team. Back then I called him the Lovely Warrant Officer!  The twenty five quilts went to the team members but also to ten fellows of the Warrant Officer's choosing, just whoever he thought might appreciate one. 

We only ever heard from one of the recipients of those ten quilts, probably because of who they went to and he was the first fellow to take a photo with his quilt that we could publish.


We have had so many more photos since then!  

At that stage Aussie Heroes had still not come into being.  All the while I was maintaining a blog of my own and I chronicled what I was doing as we went along.  I was delighted to find that many of my blogging friends shared my feelings and also wanted to help.

In each of the boxes we had sent off we included a note saying to let us know if any of their mates wanted a quilt or a laundry bag.   On the first of January 2012 I received an email from a Major over there wondering if it were possible to get quilts for her team of five.  

That was all I needed.  I took a leap of faith and a deep breath and tried not to think about what I was getting myself into.  I launched the dedicated Aussie Hero Quilts (and Laundry Bags) Blog that day and 6 weeks later I launched the Facebook page of the same name.  I spread the word as much as I could and then just got on with , but little by little Aussie Heroes grew. 

Most of the members of my quilt group went back to doing quilts for other charities and causes. It wasn't long, however, before Aussie Heroes was being supported by its own dedicated band of people we now called Friends.

I have quilt groups that make a batch of quilts and then go off and do other things.  I have quilters who make a quilt or two, and then other quilters who make quilt after quilt after quilt. I also have wonderful ladies who make laundry bags almost constantly.

I have a ten year old who is making a quilt for a community service project for school.   Two quilts were made by a school in Victoria from blocks made by the children doodling with fabric pens.  There is a lovely sixteen year old who has made her first quilt and many laundry bags as well.  At the other end of the spectrum there is a very special group of residents in an Aged Care Facility called  “The Old Bags and the Dags who sew with Rags!”   


Their ages range from 88 to 101!!!  They love sewing for their Aussie Heroes.  As well, their families are delighted that they are being made to feel useful at their age.  There are Vietnam Veteran’s wives and a number of ex-serving members like myself, as well as partners, mothers, daughters, sisters and friends of current and past serving members.  A lot of people told me that they had wanted to do something and just needed someone to tell them what to do.

As of today we have sent over 2175 quilts and 3500 laundry bags since 1 January 2012. 

We used to send off the quilts and laundry bags as Care Packages, but now we send them to specific personnel.  Sending quilts as a welfare packages meant that they were only received twice a year but I believe that the troops need the morale boost 12 months of the year and not just at Christmas time and ANZAC Day.   Sending them as a result of a request means we can send them all year.

We send to Aussie Defence personnel on Operation Slipper in the Middle East and that includes whichever ship is deployed as part of that operation at the time.  HMAS Newcastle has just returned home carrying lots of our quilts 


and HMAS Melbourne has just deployed. You might have seen the photo we received of some happy Melbourne recipients.  


We also send to United Nations Peacekeeping forces such as Operation Aslan in South Sudan, 



and Operation Mazurka in the Sinai in Egypt.    



The troops might request a quilt for themselves. Loved ones back home might submit a request.  Bosses request quilts for their staff, staff request quilts for their bosses and workmates and roommates request for each other.  Occasionally I have had members request a quilt for a family member back home.  A husband wanted his quilt to go to his wife who had been ill whilst he was deployed.  Being able to send those quilts means a great deal to those troops when they most need to feel supported.


These days I have “contacts” in various places including in Dubai, Kandahar and Kabul.   Initially  these people were some who received quilts or laundry bags and commented that their workmates were wishing they could get some so I asked if they wanted to be a “distributor”.  I rarely got knocked back.  It used to be difficult when one person left to come home to find another one to take over from them.  These days dealing with Aussie Heroes is part of the handover process, albeit voluntary. In some places I dealing a third generation "distributor" for want of a better way of describing it.    My main contact on each of the ships that deploys to Operation Slipper is the ship's chaplain and I usually try to meet, or at least chat to, each chaplain before they deploy.

As well as sending quilts and laundry bags to those who request them, some of the most important quilts we make are the Wounded Warrior Quilts.  We have two or three quilts on standby at the hospital in Kandahar to be given to wound soldiers as they transit through to the military hospitals in Germany.    With any luck no more Australian Soldiers will find themselves in Germany without an Aussie Quilt.  When someone is injured the chaplain or the medevac nurse makes sure a bundle, which includes a quilt and a laundry bag, accompanies the soldier to the hospital in Germany.   As soon as I hear a soldier has been injured replacements are sent from Sydney to wherever they are needed. Although the dimensions of these quilts remain the same, Wounded Warrior Quilts are special and they are generally as Australian as we can make them.  


They frequently feature the flag or a southern cross.  The first of these was given to a soldier in early June last year.   I wish it wasn't needed but I can’t tell you how proud I was that he received an Aussie quilt.  

We also make Fallen Warrior Quilts - the first quilt was handed to the family of an Aussie Hero killed in action in July 2012.  The families of the men who have died since then have also been offered quilts.  These quilts are made from blocks sent in from all over Australia which enables as many people as possible to contribute.  


The quilts are sent to the chaplain who is caring for the family concerned, or direct to the family if requested. 

So, what are our quilts and laundry bags like?

Firstly, they do not have to be works of art, though frankly some are.  What is really important is that they are works of the heart. 

The best part of the quilt in my opinion is the label.  It says ”

This is an AUSSIE HERO QUILT made for an Aussie Hero serving overseas with gratitude for your service.”  
It includes the year, the blog name and the email address so that the troops can contact us easily.

The size and shape is deliberate.  Long and thin means that the quilt will fit comfortably on a bunk bed or a ship’s rack and also means that they can be wrapped around the shoulders of a big burly man when he sits around the camp fire etc. Of course the quilts also need to fit into the Bx2 boxes.

Laundry bags are fully lined and made from pre-washed fabrics.  We don’t want to take the risk of colours running onto uniforms – pink soldiers are not in vogue!!!   We do tend to have some fun with the laundry bags. Bob the Builder, Buzz Lightyear and all sorts of novelty fabrics plus lots of personalized ones are made.




One quilt and a laundry bag weigh less than 2kg, which enables them to be sent free of charge.  You can usually squeeze in a few treats as well.

Some quilters make their choice of quilt – their choice of design and colour and then contact me to ask for an address to send it to.  I also have a lot of the quilters who find it difficult to make a quilt for someone they do not know. Others wanted to have a name for the person they were sewing for.  To accommodate everyone I now ask the troops, or whoever requests for them, to supply me with some preferences.  Basically I ask for favourite colours plus hobbies and interests.  At the same time they are told that the quilt they receive may bear no resemblance to the quilt they request.  I can find homes for any quilt as long as it fit within our specifications.  It really doesn’t matter whether you make a quilt according to the soldier’s preferences or if you make a generic quilt of your choice.  They are all much appreciated.

Personally though, I really enjoy seeing the requests and some of them are really interesting.  Recently one fellow asked for a green quilt that says “Keep Calm And Chive On”.  The Chive.com is a website full of funny videos and pictures and was designed to give the troops somewhere to go to lift their spirits when it is needed.

Another fellow asked for a quilt featuring lots of different sorts of waves.  That had me stumped for a while but then I saw photos taken by a fellow who is one of our past recipients from HMAS Toowoomba.  He is an amateur photographer who now lives by the beach and takes lots of photos there.  He gave me permission to use as many of his photos as I wanted in a quilt.   “Especially for a digger” he said.   


Sometimes the requests are for certain colour ways.  Not surprisingly BLUE is the most commonly requested colour from the blokes and PINK is NOT the most requested colour from the girls.  Another very popular theme is sporting team colours – football teams mostly. 


There have been lots of special quilts sent but also lots of scrap quilts, simple strippy quilts and string quilts.  I have to emphasize that the troops just love the fact that we go to the effort of making something for them without expecting anything in return.  I hear the Aussies over there are the envy of those from other Nations.  You know that has to make them feel good.

It is hard to explain what it seems the quilts and laundry bags mean to the troops.  A Brigadier wrote

"I know whenever mail arrives there is the inevitable shout of excitement from someone who has received a box from AHQ and the subsequent "displaying"  of their new prized possession for all and sundry to appreciate.  Your organisation has given much pleasure to deployed Australians and your quilts will be an indelible memory of their time spent here when these quilts are placed on their sons and daughters beds and they are told the story of these beautiful heirlooms."

You might like to know that the Brigadier in question received his very own quilt and laundry bag.  In the Brigadier’s case we were advised that he asked for Bananas in Pyjammas by his staff but, strangely,  he does not actually remember asking for it.



Another fellow wrote

 “I opened my laundry bag first and was stunned, “absolutely awesome” was the first thing that came to mind and I am too afraid to use it as a laundry bag....it is instead going 'straight to the pool room.'  I did not think that the laundry bag could possibly be outdone but you managed that with the quilt.   I LOVE IT!  The kids are going to love it and I can see it becoming one of those family heirlooms that are priceless for their intrinsic sentimental value.
Your packages have, on reception been opened with smiles, backslaps, awesome comments, laughs, a little teasing and a sense of pride.  I know that the majority of Australians are very proud of what we do but saying something a hundred times is not like living it once, and receiving your packages is that living it once.   We are absolutely blown away by the quilts, laundry bags, and extra packages of snacks that you have shared with us during our deployment.  Thank you to you and all of the ladies that participated in our, and other soldiers quilts/laundry bags. If others get half of the enjoyment from theirs that we are sure to get from ours.....you have, and the ladies have done an exceptional job.

We work with foreign military forces here, and a lot of them are all ooohs and aaahs when they see our quilts and always want to know where they can get them, I smile and think of you guys and silently thank you every time someone looks at our laundry bags and quilts and wishes that they were Australian.

Thank you for making it all count.”

Initially the feedback was amazement that someone would go to the effort of making a quilt or a laundry bag for someone they don’t know.  The troops appreciate the time and effort we put in and very much appreciate the colour, individuality and humour our efforts bring to their camouflaged uniform world. 

After receiving his quilt a Navy Commander said 

“It is nice to have a constant visual reminder that the folks back home care enough to go to all this effort for us. These quilts and laundry bags are special to us not just for what they are, but also for what they represent.”

I was proud to serve my country when I was in uniform but I am even more proud to serve those who serve us today and I am so proud of all of those that sew with me.

Thanks for reading a bit of our story. 

Till next time.............keep spreading the word and happy  stitching!  JMxx

5 comments:

  1. A beautifully written reminder of where it all started, and how much of a difference it makes.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That is a great post Jan-Maree. I have shared this one. Maybe a few more of my sewing friends will join in.

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is such a beautiful post!! Thank you for all that you have done.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Thank you for such a beautiful post.

    ReplyDelete
  5. so well written - a joy to read, thank you xx

    ReplyDelete