LEXINGTON — Candace Branham smiled and ran her fingers across the red, white and blue quilt, admiring the patterns of stars stitched into the fabric.
Branham had no idea what was in store when she arrived at the Lexington Senior Center Wednesday night. She and fellow Vietnam-era veteran Ann Marksbury arrived to find a meeting of the Lexington Friendship Quilters and they were the guests of honor.
“I basically just told them we were doing a recognition ceremony and we would like for them to attend,” quilter Teresa Winfrey said with mischievous smile. “I didn’t tell them that they were the only two that are going to be here.”
Members of the Lexington Friendship Quilters presented Branham and Marksbury with hand-made quilts, stitched with patriotic patterns in honor of their military service.
Club president Terri Gale said the quilts will be officially registered with the Quilts of Valor Foundation, a national non-profit that honors veterans across the country.
“Quilts are awarded to service members and veterans who have been touched by war,” Gale said. “These quilts say thank you for their service and sacrifice to our nation.”
Marksbury served from 1967 to 1969 in the U.S. Navy. She was a yeoman, which meant she did mostly administrative and clerical work.
“A lot of my time we wrote speeches for the admiral,” she said.
Marksbury described her time in the Navy as an honor. She was inspired to enlist by two of her aunts, who served during the Korean War.
“I’m not going to say I’m proud of myself. I always felt that those people that were over there that fought were the real heroes,” Marksbury said, referring to combat veterans in Vietnam.
“I did what I could do and I’m a very patriotic person, I always have been.”
Candace Branham joined the U.S. Army Reserves in 1967, during her last year of college. She was attending Kent State University and studying to become a nurse.
“I had too many friends who were going in. I thought I need to go and help them,” Branham said. “I wanted to go to Vietnam. I didn’t get to.”
Branham was called up for active duty two years after enlisting. She worked on the orthopedic wing of Fort Ord Hospital in Monterey, California, treating wounded soldiers coming back from Vietnam.
Branham said she tries not to think about those times.
“It was heart-wrenching. It wasn’t unusual for me to go home crying,” Branham recalled. “I’ve never seen so many depressed guys.”
After their respective years of service, Marksbury worked in manufacturing and Branham continued her career as a nurse.
Both of them continue serving their community today, though in a different capacity. Branham sits on the board of the Bellville Neighborhood Outreach Center. Marksbury is a regular volunteer there.
Both women said they appreciated the quilts, but felt a little undeserving of the honor.
The members of the Lexington Friendship Quilters disagreed.
“I told them that they were willing to serve at a time when women weren’t really doing that and they weren’t drafted. They did it on their own free will,” Winfrey said.
“You ladies signed a blank check just like the men,” Gale added. “And if the government had put a gun in your hand and said, ‘off you go,’ you would have gone.”
Wednesday’s brief ceremony was a far cry from the reception many Vietnam veterans received when they returned home. During a time when anti-war sentiment ran high, protesters often took out their frustration on members of the military.
Branham said she would remove her Army-issued raincoat before stepping off the plane during visits home.
“I didn’t want to have anybody spitting or yelling at me or anything like that,” she said.
Marksbury recalled watching her fellow soldiers jeered during a parade.
“When I see veterans, I always thank them, because it was not a good time when I came out,” she said. “I think you should also stand in line and thank a veteran for their service, because without them we would not be free today.”
Both women said they were touched by the unique ‘thank you’ they received and planned to display their quilts in their living rooms for awhile for visitors to see.
“I think it’s wonderful that they do this for veterans,” Marksbury said. “People don’t realize the little things you do for a veteran means a lot.”
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