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After 7 years of making quilts for fallen soldiers, Pasco woman prepares to pass torch

HUDSON

At first, nobody was surprised that 19-year-old Jessica Porter read and watched the news every day, looking for military deaths in Iraq.

It was 2003. The war had just begun.

Then the years went by, the death toll mounted, and Porter began to feel as if she might be one of the few still paying attention.

Through college at the University of South Florida and the years since, Porter, now 26, still followed the casualty count's upward rise, looking for the stories that others had begun to skip over: An American helicopter crashing in the desert. A raid gone wrong. A Humvee hitting a roadside bomb.

Seven years after she first began sewing quilts for the families of U.S. troops who have died, Porter, assisted by her mother, is still quilting.

Her original mission was to design and stitch one quilt for every fallen soldier. In May 2003, when she began Operation Homefront Quilts, the American death toll in Iraq alone was less than 150. It was around 500 by the end of that year. Now, over 4,400 — plus 1,200 more in Afghanistan.

The death toll isn't just a number to her. It represents grieving spouses, siblings and parents.

"When they see that, people go, 'Uh-huh, uh-huh,'" Porter said, "but because of this that's actually some families suffering."

Nobody — not her, not her mother, not any of the thousands of quilters who have donated time or money to Operation Homefront Quilts — expected the wars to last so long.

• • •

At first, the ceremonies and condolence calls were overwhelming.

In the weeks after Marine Sgt. Lea R. Mills' Humvee hit a roadside bomb in Iraq's Anbar Province, his mother found support everywhere. Dee Mills received Facebook messages from her son's high school classmates, letters from men who had served under Lea in Charlie Company, hugs from the men who had ridden in that Humvee along with Lea — but survived.

She, her husband, her younger son and Lea's widow grieved at a Camp Pendleton memorial service. They set up a memorial fund that helped pay for sending packages to soldiers overseas.

Then, gradually, the recognition faded. Dee Mills thought everybody had forgotten. The Mills family was left alone to mourn.

But two people did remember.

Less than a year after Lea Mills' death in April 2006, then-23-year-old Jessica Porter and her mother, Joanne, drove from their house in Hudson to the Millses' double-wide mobile home in Masaryktown. Folded up in the car was a twin-sized quilt, stars and stripes surrounding a Marine Corps seal on one side, a Marines-themed pattern on the back, all held together by Jessica Porter's careful white stitching.

Under a screenprinted photo of Lea Mills, the quilt's white label read: "In memory … Sgt. Lea R. Mills. April 28, 2006."

"I had a really hard time, thinking of how the American people didn't appreciate what Lea'd done," Mills recalled. "When this came, it was like giving water to a hungry plant."

• • •

At the Hudson home of Joanne and Jay Porter, the garage overflows with quilt tops from Americans in Okinawa, Japan; fabric from Israel; finished quilts from Canada; a borrowed six-foot-long sewing machine; supplies from all 50 states.

"There was a time when I think I was getting 30 to 50 packages from the mailman every day," Joanne Porter, 58, said.

Despite all the help, the scale of the project has made it, for the Porters, an all-consuming proposition.

Joanne Porter remembers working 12 hours a day when the quilting began. In addition to holding a job, Jessica Porter quilted throughout college.

That's not to say there haven't been benefits. Some of the Porters' closest friends have come out of quilting. Like Donna Barbour, a quilter from West Virginia who travels south to Hudson twice a year to help sew and organize.

"This is something that started with me, my friend and my mom," Jessica Porter said, referring to her childhood friend Ruthann Pleus, with whom she learned to quilt. Pleus later moved to Chicago. "Thousands of people have donated time and money, but on the other end, it's just two people."

• • •

The Porters and their quilters openly acknowledge there is little chance of catching up to the mounting death toll.

"The magnitude of the project — we never imagined it would be this much," said Rhonda Koning, a member of the West Pasco Quilters' Guild, which donates quilts and postage money to the Porters. "It's like a marriage, for better or for worse."

But after seven years and more than 2,300 quilts, the Porters are trying to move on from Operation Homefront Quilts. As soon as they can send their fabric and other supplies to the Caprock Quilters at Cannon Air Force Base in Clovis, N.M., military wives there will take over.

Jessica Porter will soon mark her one-year anniversary working at the Pasco County Sheriff's Office legal department. Her parents can finally start clearing out the quilt-filled garage and repainting the walls.

"We went in with the goal to provide something hopeful to the families," Jessica Porter said. "But a lot happens in seven years."

Her goal hasn't changed since she was 19, friends and family say, even though the media attention died down. But she says her political views have evolved. She doesn't like to say she's a supporter of the war; instead, she says she supports the troops and what they've accomplished.

"Over in America we can muster all these votes for American Idol, and we can't get votes for office," she said. "But the Iraqis are willing to die to vote. Our troops have done a lot of good things over there."

Compared to what happens every day in Iraq and Afghanistan, she said, her quilting work is nothing.

A lot happens in seven years.

"You do what you can," she said.

Vivian Yee can be reached at vivian.hw.yee@gmail.com.

After 7 years of making quilts for fallen soldiers, Pasco woman prepares to pass torch 08/14/10 [Last modified: Saturday, August 14, 2010 1:14pm]
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