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America Supports You: Couple Conducts Patriotic Pillow Project

By Terri Lukach
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 14, 2005 – When Daniel Finn returned home in 1968 after two years in Vietnam with the 25th Infantry Division, he was without his left foot and had lost the hearing in his right ear. Both were lost in an ambush. What followed were 10 intensive months of surgeries, prosthesis fittings and physical therapy.

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(From left) Dan and Christina Finn, Joe Fleck and Carmela Foster display examples of pillows they gave to wounded servicemembers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. The Finns started the Patriotic Pillow Project to help wounded veterans, and Fleck and Foster are volunteers with the group. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Cherie Thurlby, USAF

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Twenty-seven years later, in June 2004, Dan was invited to a reunion of his former comrades-in-arms in the nation's capital. His wife, Christina, accompanied him after first offering him the option of reuniting with his buddies alone. "No," he said. "I want you to come. I don't want to live in the past. I want to live in the present and look to the future."

The two of them couldn't have known that that trip would eventually lead to the Patriotic Pillow Project, now a full-time calling for Christina.

Part of that visit to Washington included dinner at Fran O'Brien's, a swank downtown D.C. restaurant that opens its doors to wounded veterans of the global war on terror on Friday evenings, treating them to a free dinner and the chance to reacquaint themselves with the world beyond the war.

Neither Christina nor Dan will ever forget that night visiting with what she calls "our healing heroes." The Finns spent the next two days visiting with wounded vets at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here. When it was time to go home, they both felt like they had to do more.

Christina remembered well what it was like when her husband returned from Vietnam. He and his fellow soldiers, she said, received no recognition, honor or praise. She didn't want that to happen to these new heroes. Christina said she wanted them to know just how much America admires their courage and appreciates their willingness to defend freedom.

The need to do something more was amplified by the fact that the Finns' own son, Ryan, now serves with the 1st Calvary Division in Iraq.

Over the Christmas holidays in 2003, Patricia volunteered to help the local USO welcome home returning veterans at Chicago's Midway Airport. There she met a stranded vet who was forced to spend several days at the airport before he could catch a connecting flight home. Her heart went out to him because the best she could offer him was a raggedy pillow someone had dragged off a plane.

Relating the story at her own son's going-away party the following May, a long-time friend of the family who worked for United Airlines said, "Well if its pillows you want, I can help, but you'll have to find a way to make covers."

Patricia did, recruiting volunteers to stitch cover replicas of the very thing they were defending -- the American flag. And the Patriotic Pillow Project was born.

The pillow project quickly became a family enterprise, with the Finns youngest son, Shawn, becoming the project's webmaster. Their daughter, Heather, a business student, helped with marketing and fundraising. And Christina left her job as an operating room nurse at the Edward Hines Jr. Veterans Affairs Hospital outside Chicago to devote all of her time to the project.

A segment highlighting the project on the Fox News Channel brought volunteers from around the country and donations to help with materials and shipping.

United Airlines donated 1,000 pillows, and more than 500 covers have been stitched since June 2004.

Working eight hours a day, a group of volunteers that jokingly called themselves "No Sweatshops" cut the material, created the quilted American flag covers, and assembled and shipped the finished products to wounded veterans at Walter Reed and military hospitals in Maryland and Texas.

And the effort is appreciated. One veteran whose parents, coming to take him home, tried to pack up the pillow with his other belongings said, "No, don't take that. It fits perfectly under my head - and it's the best thing that I've ever gotten."

On March 10 and 11, the Finns made their fourth visit to wounded veterans in the Washington area, making stops at both Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md. With them were 178 handmade pillows constructed by volunteers from across the country.

One of the patients the Finns visited at Walter Reed was a former student at the Carver Military Academy in Chicago, where Dan works as a special education coordinator. The wound he suffered in Iraq when an improvised explosive device took off most of his foot is similar to the injury Dan suffered in Vietnam. Before Finns left Chicago, all the teachers at Carver Academy autographed the pillow, adding handwritten messages of love and support.

As they departed Walter Reed, the Finns left more than 75 pillows to be distributed to patients they did not have time to see and to any new arrivals who might come before they have a chance to return. During their visit to Bethesda the day before, the Finns also met with several patients and left about 100 pillows to be distributed later.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageFaculty and staff at the Carver Military Academy in Chicago signed this pillow for a former student who is recuperating from war wounds at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington D.C. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Cherie Thurlby, USAF  
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