Thursday, 9 October 2014

Three years on



Somewhere I probably have written down the date of the first email to the wife of the very first Aussie Hero.  Yes, there is actually a very first Aussie Hero  - the one with whom it all started. I am pretty sure that email was sent off around the 10th of October. I do know that on the 10th of November 2011 the first boxes were sent off.   As we are approaching the third Anniversary of the beginnings of Aussie Heroes it seems right that I should tell the story again seeing as we have so many new followers.



So how did it start?   


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 in the early 80'.  No, I had not just had my face shoved into a plate of vegemite toast - that was camoflage paint and perfectly applied I had thought at the time! LOL Can you see that we still wore gaters back then, strapped over the legs of our jungle green trousers.


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 and completed another seven and a half years.  In 1990 I married my husband David, then a RAAF engineer.    


I stayed in the navy until just after our twin sons were born when I opted to become a full time mum.  That was 18 and a half years ago.


They were sooo cute!

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 at the same time was ashamed that there was nothing from his own country for him.  

If you read the blog you will know that this is Garry whose story I recently told on the blog here.  I did not know who Garry was when I heard about him.   It was a several months after Aussie Heroes had started that Garry's wife, Katrina, contacted me and a few months after that when I met both of them.  I am so proud to say that they are both friends of mine now.  Back then though it just hurt to know that an Aussie soldier, in fact more than one, had been injured seriously and had received a quilt from America because Australia could not provide him with one.  


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.  I know I am not alone in this and many veterans still feel the hurt very deeply to this day.  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.

I suspect few civilians realize exactly how much we ask of our troops and how much they give, as well as the sacrifices that they and their famiiies make so that they can serve their country.  With the current situation in the world the way it is the demands we make on our Defence personnel are only likely to increase.

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 can still remember sitting looking at the computer screen thinking “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 on my old blog 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.


He is still in touch with me and earlier this year I went and spent a night with him and his family. They still have the original quilt and I doubt they would part with it if you asked them too.

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.


Our quilters and laundry bags makers come from all over Australia and from all skill levels. Old, young, experienced quilters who have run out of people to make quilts for and newbies who learn to quilt just so that they can make an Aussie Hero Quilt.  



We have serving members, ex-serving members like me, wives, partners, sisters, mothers of serving members, daughters of veterans and countless people with no military connection at all but an appreciation for their service that drives them to say thank you by sewing for us.

As of last Friday we have sent over 3200 quilts and 5000 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 Operaton in the Middle East and that includes whichever ship is deployed as part of that operation at the time.  HMAS Toowoomba is our current ship and they have received around 140 quilts. 


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




and Operation Mazurka in the Sinai in Egypt.    




In fact if you haven't seen the video that our first Egyptian contingent sent back as a thank you then you need to check it out. Click here.

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 am dealing a third or fourth generation "distributor" for want of a better way of describing it.    My main contact on each of the ships that deploys to Operation Manitou is the ship's chaplain and I usually try to meet, or at least chat to, each chaplain before they deploy.  When our next ship, HMAS Success deploys I have been invited to be there to farewell them.

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 several 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 2012.   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.  Lately we have been making Poppy quilts.  These quilts are made from blocks sent in from all over Australia which enables as many people as possible to contribute.  Occasionally we tailor the quilt to suit the preferences of the Fallen Warrior's loved ones. Isn't that the least we can do?


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 standard Aussie Hero 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
with gratitude for your service

The label 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 or in front of the TV etc. Of course the quilts also need to fit into the Bx2 boxes and they need to be compact and light enough for the troops to carry them with them if they move whilst deployed. Many plan to take their quilt with them every time they deploy.  One young special forces troop I met recently keeps both his quilt an laundry bag in his deployment bag at all times.

Laundry bags are fully lined and made from pre-washed fabrics.  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 fits within our specifications.   I have found that all the quilts and laundry bags are 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 passionate and talented 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 hope you have enjoyed reading a bit of our story.  I think it is good to look back every year and remember how and why Aussie Heroes was started.  We have a few other irons in the fire these days, but the primary focus of Aussie Heroes will always remain getting quilts and laundry bags to those that are deployed in order to serve Australia.  We can't get quilts and laundry bags to everyone but we can get them to at least a section of the defence community that leaves their families and loved ones and all that is familiar to do their job.

I was very 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

4 comments:

  1. As always after reading your blog, tears flowing! I'm showing a friend how to patchwork and together we will send something as soon as we can. Yes, the world would be a much better place if we all did something nice for someone else! Thank you Jan-Marie for your inspiration and organisation of this very worthy cause! x

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great reading JM! Nice to know your story from the start.. GREAT photos too!! Thanks for sharing the quotes from thank you letters.. Keep Calm and Quilt On!! lol
    cheers
    cindy...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Wonderful post Jan-Maree. This should be repeated at this time every year. Thank you for the vision and the courage to go forward with it.

    ReplyDelete