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Disabled patriot: ‘I wish I could do more’

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Updated: January 7, 2014 6:11AM



When Staff Sgt. Steven Schroeder walked into Prairie Shop Quilts in Batavia earlier this week, it was quickly apparent he was among fans.

More than two dozen seamstresses gathered around him with smiles on their faces as Rita Pennington, Illinois coordinator for Quilts of Valor Foundation, wrapped a beautiful red, white and blue checked quilt around the sergeant’s uniformed shoulders.

These members of the foundation’s Land of Lincoln chapter applauded. They thanked the 28-year-old Aurora man for his service to country. Some asked questions: about his rank, his specialty. One woman, Priscilla Miller, even recognized him from her veteran father’s recent funeral, where Schroeder, who came home from a second tour in Afghanistan in September but remains in the Army Reserves, had served in the honor guard.

Sitting quietly in the back of this quilt shop was the only man among all these females. His name is Eddie Burkel. And after listening to the quilt presentation, this lone male went quickly back to work, ironing the cloth patches recently stitched together by the ladies in the room.

This Land of Lincoln QOV chapter, which meets at Bonita Deering’s shop off Randall Road, has been around for about half as long as the decade-old Quilts of Valor Foundation. It started with four volunteers who met once a month, and now has at least two dozen regulars.

Burkel is remarkable, not because he is the only man among them, but because he is a man who has no hands. Nor does he have elbows. Despite this congenital condition, he makes the monthly drive from his home in Bolingbrook to Batavia, where he leans over a sewing board for at least four hours, using his arm stubs to hold the steaming iron that presses the cloth pieces into flat, crisp squares.

“I wish I could do more,” says the 44-year-old man, a Bears hat sitting atop his head. “I wish they allowed people with disabilities to join the military …. To do clerical work or something. But I understand why they don’t.”

So he is content to “do the little I can” at these monthly gatherings.

It is tedious work, noted Pennington, because Burkel has to place the stumps of his arms that much closer to the iron to get the job done. Some days he works so hard he is drenched in sweat. Yet Burkel participates with an eagerness that makes Pennington’s job as state coordinator of the growing foundation that much more special.

This chapter that creates and distributes more than 300 quilts a year has recently expanded to include a group in the Rockford area, and another in central Illinois. And requests for quilts continue to increase as word gets out the QOV will make a quilt for every veteran who served in a war, including those who were in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It is important we get that information out there,” insisted Pennington, who works with Navy personnel from Great Lakes Naval Base, Hines VA Hospital, thewoundedsolider.com and welcomeyouhome.org. If you know of a deserving recipient, all you have to do is email her at rita.pennington@QOVF.org.

It’s easy to see why this project has become so popular. There is something warm and comforting about the beautiful keepsakes, especially when you consider the time and talent that goes into those thousands of stitches. These volunteers have seen that appreciation over and over again when these quilts are placed around the shoulders of those who served.

“There are so many hurting veterans out there,” said Pennington, who had a car trunk filled with quilts for distribution when the Moving Wall was in Aurora a month ago.

As Schroeder, who admits he’s struggling with PTSD after his tours in Afghanistan, made his way around the room, personally thanking the volunteers, he finally reached Burkel. The two men spent some time talking football … Bears football, to be exact, with Schroeder even pulling out his phone to show a photo of him taken during a ceremony at Soldier Field.

At one point in his life, Burkel said, his mother revealed her concern about how she’d take care of him as she grew older. Instead, he returned to Illinois after living out of state in the mid-1990s to help provide care for her.

“This is the way I was born,” he shrugged. “I knew I had two choices in life, let others take care of me or learn to take care of myself. It was an easy choice.”

It’s no wonder there is mutual respect in the men’s eyes when they say their goodbyes.

Both sergeant and volunteer know life is full of struggles.

It is also filled with people who remind us how incredible the human spirit really is.



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