LAKE ANDES (AP) – Betty Jean Gall honored her family's veterans last month, but she didn't pin medals on their chests.
Instead, she wrapped quilts around their shoulders.
Gall brought nine quilts with her from South Carolina to last weekend's family reunion in Lake Andes. The 65 inches by 72 inches quilts contained a variety of patterns incorporating Mount Rushmore, the American eagle and the stars and stripes.
"These are South Dakota veterans, so I incorporated things from the state," she explained. "All of these quilts contain red, white and blue. I put those colors in every one that I make."
Gall holds plenty of experience, as she belongs to the national volunteer organization called Quilts of Valor. Since 2003, the organization has distributed 222,200 quilts to veterans of all ages and military service.
The organization started with the one woman and has spread nationwide, Gall said.
"Quilts of Valor was started in 2003 by Catherine Roberts," Gall told the Yankton Press & Dakotan. "Her son was deployed to Iraq, and she had this vivid dream. Catherine envisioned a young soldier on his bed (in the middle of the night), slumped over and so depressed. In the same dream, Catherine saw him wrapped in a quilt and how it raised his spirits."
Roberts thought not only of her son in combat but of the millions of veterans who may still be suffering years later. "She wanted to honor the returning veterans, to show them that they are still remembered and not forgotten," Gall said.
An effort that started in Roberts' sewing room in Delaware turned into a national movement. She envisioned a volunteer network of quilt top makers and machine quilters who would award healing quilts to returning service men and women touched by war.
Over time, the Quilts of Valor Foundation QOVF has expanded to include military service members and veterans touched by war regardless of the conflict – declared war or otherwise – in which they served. The quilts are lifetime awards, stitched with love, prayers and healing thoughts.
Gall joined the effort because of the quilt's special meaning.
"I became involved because I think it's so wonderful to honor the veterans," 'she said. "Since I started, I've given about 50 quilts. Some veterans cry when they receive their quilt. I could have cried, too."
After making quilts for others, Gall focused on honoring her family members. Starting last November, she worked against the clock to make sure all of the quilts were ready in time for last weekend's reunion.
"I brought them with me from South Carolina as a surprise. We kept it a secret so that none of the veterans knew they were receiving it," she said. "No one at all knew about it here today (at the reunion) except for Bev Merkwan, who lives in Geddes and was my local connection to make sure people were here today."
Harold Wentland couldn't understand why Gall was so insistent about him sticking around the reunion at the Charles Mix County 4-H Building.
"I was headed down to Pickstown (six miles away) earlier today because we had family members who were camping down there (by the Missouri River)," Wentland said. "But Betty Jean kept saying, 'You can't leave!' Then I was told that I had to be back by 1 o'clock. I had no idea why I had to be here, but I came back in time."
Gall gathered the relatives at the reunion for a special announcement. She explained the Quilts of Valor organization and her role in it. She would be honoring a special group of veterans — those gathered in the room.
One by one, Gall introduced each veteran and brought him or her forward. She described the person's time, location and branch of service. Those who were present included Tom Kolecka, Robert Wentland, Richard Kolecka, Harold Wentland, Larry Wentland, Jean Kolecka and Terry Rasmussen.
Mike Wentland accepted a quilt for his father, Alvin Wentland, who could not attend the reunion. The final recipient, Paul Wentland Jr., also could not attend.
After each introduction, Gall reached into the box and pulled out the quilt for that designated person. Each quilt was unfolded to show the full scenes and details. The quilt was then carefully placed around the recipient's shoulders.
Cheers and applause erupted in the room, with dozens of smartphones raised for a mass photo shoot.
The veterans showed a mix of emotions. Some beamed smiles; others quietly accepted the quilt.
And at least two of the men fought back tears. They may have faced combat and the threat of death, but the quilts represented something overwhelming — public recognition for their service. They noted many of their fellow veterans haven't received gratitude decades later for their service.
Larry Wentland served with the Air Force at Okinawa. He saw his quilt as honoring not only him but also all previous generations who served in the military.
"So many people don't realize the sacrifices that the people before us made," he said. "I want people to look back and realize the sacrifices made by several members of their own family so we could be free."
Tom Kolecka served with the Wagner unit of the South Dakota National Guard. His quilt continued an eagle and Mount Rushmore.
"What do I think of this quilt? I love it," he said.
Unfortunately, too many people take for granted the service of millions of veterans, Kolecka added. "We're living free because of the brave," he said.
Harold Wentland, who served with the Marines, admired the stars and stripes on his quilt. "To receive one of the Quilts of Valor is very humbling," he said.
Gall has seen the quilts treated in a variety of ways, depending on the veteran and circumstances. "We have about half who use it (for everyday purposes) and others who keep it as a memento," she said.
She pointed out some notable examples.
"One veteran with dementia sat in his chair all the time. His wife put the quilt on him, and now he never takes it off. He keeps it near him — it's his comfort," she said. "Then, we have a couple in my church who drape it over their couch."
Sometimes, the quilt can provide very powerful feelings, Gall said.
"One lady wanted to hang the quilt on the wall," she said. "Her son came home from Iraq, not quite the same (as when he left), and committed suicide a month later. She wanted the quilt on the wall as a memorial for him."
Gall never expected to become involved with such a project.
"My mother started quilting. She wanted me to try it, but it looked too hard and complicated," she said.
However, Gall wanted to become involved with the Quilt of Valor. She purchases and donates the material, someone else does the quilting and she finishes the top and other work.
The quilts are twin sized for most veterans. If recipients are handicapped or confined to bed, they receive a lap-sized quilt.
During the Lake Andes presentation, Gall pointed out the quilt's back corner contains a tag listing who made it, when and where. After the ceremony, she marked down that the quilt was presented last month.
"My goal was to finish all the quilts by the reunion, because I knew they would all be here. And two of my uncles are 94 and 91 (years old). I may never see them again."
Gall looked around the room and saw the joy on the veterans' faces as they wore or held their new quilts. She hoped to continue bringing that feeling to many more recipients in the years ahead.
"It's such a good feeling to honor the veterans," she said. "They're so deserving of it."