Six months after his marriage, Matt Keil became a quadriplegic.
An Army staff sergeant, Mr. Keil was on his third deployment in Iraq in February when a sniper shot him. Today he considers himself fortunate to be alive, and when he wears his new clothes, life seems almost normal to his wife, Tracy.
"Literally in every sense of the word other than him being in a wheelchair, he looks normal," says Mrs. Keil, an accountant for a government defense contractor. The couple lives in suburban Denver. "When we go out, I don't want someone looking at Matt like there's something wrong with him."
With needles and thread, one volunteer group is laboring to restore some measure of normalcy to wounded soldiers such as Keil by getting them out of hospital gowns and into street clothes. Nationwide, more than 1,000 seamstresses have joined with Sew Much Comfort, together turning out more than 45,000 shirts, shorts, pants, and other clothing. They've been altered with Velcro and have wider pant legs and wider neck openings to make them easier for injured soldiers to wear. The organization offers nearly 60 kinds of clothing and now is beginning to adapt military uniforms for wounded soldiers who want to return to active service.
Almost every article is stitched by volunteers who, hunched over sewing machines, are drawn to the show of support for its personal and often maternal nature. Some say that as they work, they imagine the circumstances in which their clothes will be worn. Others say prayers over the clothes.
"I pray for these people to be strong enough to heal. The shirt goes with my best thoughts and my thank-you for what they are doing," says Claudia Minkley, a Brazilian immigrant who's a regular with a sewing group in the Orlando suburb of Oviedo. She holds up a long-sleeved striped shirt in which she sewed Velcro pieces down the length of one side.
Established in 2004, Sew Much Comfort is the idea of Ginger Dosedel, a mother of three whose husband works at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside Dayton, Ohio. Eleven years ago, her oldest boy was diagnosed with cancer, and his treatment made it difficult for him to wear regular clothes. His mother made special garments so he could get out of hospital gowns. During his rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, Mrs. Dosedel's son noticed many of the soldiers had similar clothing challenges.
"He looked at them and said, 'Mom, you need to sew for them because they've got nothing but hospital gowns,' " Dosedel remembers.
Today, Dosedel's son is doing well, and Sew Much Comfort is growing fast. She started out by asking a friend to help her begin an organization to get altered clothing to wounded soldiers. Her mother-in-law rounded up friends who liked to sew, and together they began stitching Velcro into pants and boxer shorts.
Sew Much Comfort now has sewers in all 50 states, Canada, and Europe. It supplies clothing to nearly 100 combat surgical hospitals, veterans' hospitals, and other military medical centers. Some clothes are shipped to soldiers' homes.
In 2006, President Bush recognized the organization through the Defense Department effort "America Supports You," which assists groups that support the troops.
In Florida, more than 100 women's clubs, church groups, and others are involved in Sew Much Comfort, says Joy Campbell, who serves as the organization's regional director from her home in the Panhandle town of Jay. One women's club raised $10,000 and arranged with an athletic company to have 400 pairs of athletic shorts manufactured to Sew Much Comfort's specifications, she says.
Every Monday, about a dozen women gather at Oviedo's First United Methodist Church. Many are the wives and mothers of military members. Some spend their own money on fabric, T-shirts, and boxer shorts. Others get donations from churches and individuals. They toil attentively at their sewing machines, turning out shirts, shorts, and pants. In some, they replace seams and buttons with Velcro. Others they make from scratch using patterns the organization provides. They turn out some 30 articles of clothing a month and send them to headquarters in Ohio, which distributes the clothing according to need. In every item they stitch a "Sew Much Comfort" label.
They have no contact with the soldiers who wear their clothes, but they beam with pride over the thank-you notes they get from headquarters. And they can imagine.
Shirley Peters of nearby Casselberry served 21 years in the Navy as a nurse, including a year in Vietnam. Wearing a Snoopy T-shirt emblazoned with the words, "Proud to be an American," she gets teary as she discusses her sewing.
"I get a real sense of helping," she says, "Helping the soldier who has to get used to a new body image."