Ashen fog hung heavy over the war-ravaged streets of Hue, the Vietnamese city located 30 miles south of the now-defunct border that separated the communist North from the republic South. An 18-year-old Alvin Bert Grantham had spent the last two months in the city and now found himself in its belly, the stone-walled confines of the citadel, engaged in gunfire with the North Vietnamese army. It was Saturday, February 17, 1968.
Gunfire, punctuated by agonizing shouts, pierced the damp air. Grantham, known as “A.B.,” pressed on with his unit, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment. As part of a machine-gun squad, Grantham was never without his M-60.
Only 18 days into the fight, the Battle of Hue was already proving to be one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the Vietnam War. The close quarters of the citadel meant shots from the enemy literally came from across the street. Buildings and homes became battlefields, with bullet-riddled walls providing thinly veiled protection.
As Grantham’s squad swept house to house, a rocket exploded, which sent razor-sharp shrapnel hurling toward his unit, injuring everyone but him. Grantham dragged his comrades to safety before responding to another unit’s request for a machine gun, just a few buildings down. He would never arrive.
Amidst a rain of bullets, Grantham sought shelter in a closer building, returned fire through a window, then ducked and waited. The next time he appeared in the window, a bullet from an AK-47 pierced his chest, sending him hurtling through the air and landing on his back, gun still in hand. “I’m hit,” is all he could mutter.
Searing pain tore through Grantham’s chest. He struggled to breathe; the slug had broken his rib, torn through his right lung and left a gaping wound in his thorax, called a sucking chest wound. Quick-thinking Marines nearby packed the cavity with cellophane wrappers from cigarette boxes. They kicked down a door and used it as a stretcher, carrying the young man from Mobile to an awaiting tank.
It was there, atop the makeshift ambulance, that Grantham closed his eyes and allowed himself to think about his childhood, about his friend with whom he had joined the Marines, about the girl he liked. This moment was captured by photographer John Olson, a photo that appeared in Life magazine, poignantly known as “The Marine on the Tank.”
Grantham was pale and lifeless, presumed dead and zipped into a body bag. He is listed as a casualty in the book, “Hue 1968: A Turning Point of the American War in Vietnam.”
War. A simple word, only three letters long, but it’s a word that conjures images, unimaginable scenes, too gruesome to describe and too painful to remember. And for families whose loved ones are deployed, being able to provide a small sense of comfort to their soldier can bring a sliver of peace.
Since at least the Revolutionary War, quilts have been one way to provide that tangible consolation. Records indicate that through the years, thousands of quilts have been sent to the frontline and to field hospitals. One night as she slept, Delawarean Catherine Roberts, whose son was serving in Iraq, had a dream about quilts, about how she could use them to honor and comfort soldiers on the other side of war — our veterans. Inspired by her vision, in 2003 she founded Quilts of Valor (QOV), a now-international, all-volunteer program that’s mission is to comfort those who have been touched by war. To date, over 280,000 quilts have been made and awarded, an important distinction from “handed out.”
Recipients are nominated via form on the organization’s website, and from there the information is siphoned down to the state coordinator and then the region. A quilting team begins constructing, piecing squares of fabric and then quilting the three-layered cloth sandwich together, usually with the help of a long arm machine.
Carol Peterson, of Mobile, quilts by hand. “I make quilts knowing I am going to give it to somebody who really needs it. Some of these veterans have never been recognized,” she says, shaking her head. “I presented a quilt to a 94-year-old veteran at a military reunion, and he just stood there and cried.”
“They are very thankful,” agrees Joyce Reed, director of Mobile’s QOV chapter. “Some have never received a thank you for their service, especially those who fought in Vietnam.”
Due largely to the bitter debate surrounding the war, Vietnam vets were not greeted with ticker tape parades and warm hugs, a sharp contrast to how WWII soldiers were received.
“It’s an emotional time when we wrap the quilt around them,” according to Peterson. “It’s an embrace that’s likely been needed for decades.”
“It was a very difficult time,” Grantham says of his return to the States from Vietnam. Despite a near-fatal shot, he had survived. He’d spend upwards of a year in and out of hospitals, both overseas and domestically, for war-related injuries.
He continues, “Everyone seemed different to me. It was like being around strangers, even though they were family. I was very guarded with my feelings and emotions when I came back. I did not like to speak of the experiences I went through. Speaking of it was kind of useless because you can’t put those things in words. People don’t understand the horrors of war and what it does to people, even to the people who survive.”
An estimated 800,000 Vietnam veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Grantham included. For him, PTSD manifested in anger, brought on, he says, by guilt and shame and trauma.
“For a period in the mid to late ‘80s, I was at a very low ebb in my life. Fortunately, I received treatment from Veterans Affairs. I’ve been in treatment for 33 or 34 years now, and I still go. People ask me why. It’s because I still need it; it’s still useful and I still learn how to deal with myself and the rest of the world.”
Grantham says he is doing outstanding these days, both physically and emotionally. He’s got two companions by his side, his wife, Dianna, and his service dog, a black Labrador named Bocephus, both lifesavers.
And he has a quilt, a Quilt of Valor, handmade and presented by Peterson. He still tears up when he looks at it.
“It’s one of my most prized possessions,” the Purple Heart recipient declares. “Nobody touches my quilt except me.” He pauses, then laughs. “I will let my dog lay under it with me sometimes.”
As an extension of his gratitude, Grantham wrote a letter to Peterson, a portion of which he shares: “Whatever this experience of war has cost me physically or emotionally, your gift has somehow made it easier to bear. I have reached for and wrapped myself up in it several times this winter; I get a great feeling of calm, safety and warmth every time … Nothing or no one has helped me feel the healing power that this quilt gives me. Somehow, through that pile of cloth, you convey the love and appreciation these veterans need to help them heal. You give them a sense of worth and accomplishment.”
When asked about the program that began with one mama’s dream-turned-mission, Grantham concludes, “I have always admired the Quilts of Valor program, and I think it’s one of the best that you can do for veterans.”
To learn more or to get involved with Quilts of Valor, visit QOVF.org.