War affects veterans who make it home differently.
For one Homer veteran, talking about what happened during his deployment to Vietnam during the height of the war is something he rarely, if ever, does. For an Anchor Point veteran, other than being in the military itself for 20 years, one of the most difficult challenges he says he endured was the impact a life of uncertainty due to his military career had on his family. Both of these veterans sacrificed more than most will ever understand in service to their country, but the thread that ties these two veterans’ experiences together can be found in two quilts, carefully sewn together by the Kachemak Bay Quilters.
What is the significance of these quilts? They are Quilts of Valor.
On Thursday, Nov. 11, after the Veterans Day lunch at the Elks Lodge, United States Marine Corps Cpl. Gary Squires and Air Force Master Sgt. Leroy Keene will be awarded Quilts of Valor for their sacrifice during their military service.
“It is an honor,” Keene said. “ … It’s a reflection of the importance of my military career.”
The Quilts of Valor Foundation is a national 501 (c)(3) not-for-profit organization whose mission is “to cover Service Members and Veterans touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor.” Veterans are nominated by family, friends and community members to receive quilts made by volunteer quilting groups.
According to the Quilts of Valor website, “Our focus is on those most in need of comfort and healing first; those who need to know their sacrifice is acknowledged, those who need the affirmation of a hug, and those who never heard the words ‘Welcome Home.’”
“I think it’s pretty nice,” Squires said of the recognition.
To date, more than 286,000 quilts have been awarded to veterans affected by war.
The Kachemak Bay Quilters, a local group of friends who quilt together, has awarded Quilts of Valor to nominated veterans for four years. Karrie Youngblood, a member of Kachemak Bay Quilters and spouse of an Air Force veteran, began volunteering for Quilts of Valor roughly seven years ago, and the group soon joined her efforts to make the quilts for veterans.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Youngblood began when asked what making the quilts means to her. “I am actually a military brat, so it means a lot to recognize people who have given so much to our country.
“My dad went to Vietnam twice when I was young, and that was never reciprocated. They weren’t appreciated for what they did for their country. So it means a lot to me to be able to recognize people … who have been affected by war. It means a lot when anyone who has given so much gets recognized for what they are doing for our country,” Youngblood said.
This year’s recipients are two people who deserve to be recognized, according to Youngblood.
Squires enlisted in the Marine Corps as a senior in high school in 1968. He shared he didn’t want to get drafted, and his dad was a Marine, so Squires decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. Growing up in the West, Squires attended boot camp in San Diego and advanced training at Camp Pendleton before being deployed to Vietnam in 1969. While serving as an infantryman, Squires was responsible for guarding the Da Nang Air Force Base, which served as a major station for the U.S. Army, Air Force and Marine Corps.
“The first part of (my deployment), all we did was guard duty. I think it was 12 hours on and 12 hours off at the Da Nang Air Force base,” Squires said.
After six months of MP duty, he was transferred to LZ Ross where he served with Golf Company, 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines.
“When I went to the bush, we ran patrols, set up ambushes and did guard duty sometimes,” Squires explained.
He said his time in the military helped teach him to work as a team and respect other people, but it’s difficult to talk about his experiences in Vietnam with people who weren’t there. So he mostly doesn’t.
“Look, kid, I’ll tell you why I don’t talk about it,” Squires said. “ … I can talk about it (with other veterans) and they’d understand. Most other people don’t understand.”
Squires returned home in March of 1970 and was discharged from the Corps, but said he was pretty “jumpy” for a while after his experiences.
“Any time you hear a shot, you duck,” he said. “Other than that, it didn’t do nothing.”
Keene, a non-commissioned officer in charge of orthopedics upon retirement, made a career out of the Air Force when he never even intended to enlist.
“My brother was trying to get in the military when we got out of high school,” Keene said. “ … The town that I grew up in, Silver City, New Mexico, there wasn’t a whole lot to do there, so I went with my brother to talk with recruiters for just something to do.”
“It sounded pretty good to me at that time. They pay you, they train you,” he continued. “That’s what got me into the military.”
Keene began his career in 1976 as a medical services specialist before retraining in orthopedics, where he spent the rest of his military service and several years after retirement.
“Working in the hospital was good; it was good duty,” he said.
Like most service members, Keene completed his first four years and figured he could do another four years until he realized he had been serving for 14 years. When other job offers became available, he decided he could finish out his 20 years and retire working in a field he enjoyed. Over the years, he rose through the ranks to lead the orthopedics units at Minot Air Force Base and Elmendorf Air Force Base.
One of the most notable times in Keene’s career he shared was when he deployed during the Gulf War to serve with an orthopedic surgical team at an air-transportable hospital near King Khalid International Airport in Saudi Arabia. The hospital originally had two surgeons working around the clock, so Keene and 10 others were sent to help aid the wounded. For his service, he was awarded the Kuwait Liberation Medal.
“We augmented their hospital so we could run 24 hours a day if the mother of all wars really happened,” Keene said.
The compound Keene was stationed at housed a Patriot missile battery, which was targeted by Iraqi Army Scud missiles during his deployment. Because of the threat to use chemical warfare against U.S. troops, each missile alert that sounded required immediate protection.
“We had to get in our chemical warfare gear plenty of times. We had plenty alerts where we had to dress in chemical warfare gear because that was the scare that Saddam Hussein was going to use chemical weapons,” Keene shared. “That was kind of tiring. In the middle of the night, we’d get three to four alerts and some nights we’d get none. So you just didn’t get a lot of sleep over there.”
While treating wounded service members during deployments and at home consumed most of his time, Keene shared the biggest challenge for him was constantly moving his family or having to be away from them for his job. Having to relocate every few years to new places and find new jobs and places in the community impacted his wife and their daughter heavily, but Keene said they managed every move and became more adaptable.
“I think that’s what I hated the most about the military was being separated from my family at times. But my wife, she tolerated it quite well and was good. We’ve been married now for 43 years. She stuck with me through my whole military career, and even when I was gone, she was there and took care of things. My military career is as much about her as it is about me.”
After everything, his wife even nominated him for the Quilt of Valor.
Keene retired in 1996 and went to work for an orthopedic practice in Idaho before moving back to Alaska.
Both veterans shared that their time in the military made them more disciplined and adaptable to what life throws their way. After everything they have endured, receiving a Quilt of Valor is testament to their service and duty.
In honor of Veterans Day, events begin with a ceremony at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Homer Emblem Club Veterans Memorial at the corner of Lake Street and Pioneer Avenue. A parade of veterans organizations starts after the ceremony, and proceeds west on Pioneer Avenue to Main Street, down Main Street to the Homer Bypass, and then east on the bypass. The parade ends at the American Legion Post 16 General Buckner Veterans Memorial at Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center and is followed by a short service. The Elks Lodge will host a Veterans Day lunch following the service at noon where Keene and Squires will be presented with their Quilts of Valor.