Her Care Packages Comforted These Vietnam Veterans on Valentine’s Day

A Vietnam vet struggling with addiction was inspired by a simple gift of sewing kits.

Posted in , Dec 27, 2020

An artist's rendering of sewing materials; Illustration by Miyuki Sakai

Red hearts decorated the windows inside the dollar store, but that wasn’t what I’d come in for today. I’d stopped off on my way home from my nursing shift at the V.A. Mental Health Clinic as a favor to one of my patients.

Irv was a Vietnam veteran who struggled with alcohol abuse. So much so that I’d referred him to a rehab center out of state. Irv wasn’t happy about going, but he went. “You wouldn’t believe it here, Bert,” he’d told me over the phone. “Saddest bunch of soldiers I’ve ever seen.”

“Alcoholism will suck the spirit out of a person,” I said. “I can imagine.”

“It’s not just that,” Irv said. “There are fourteen of us, and boy, are we are a ragtag group. Buttons missing, popped seams, torn pockets. I’m itching to teach the guys to sew; I took care of things like that back in Nam. But try finding a needle and thread in this place. It’s impossible. I don’t suppose you could find me a sewing kit?”

Irv didn’t like to ask for help, so I was glad he had reached out with even this simple request, one not just for himself but also in the interest of others. It was a good sign.

I wheeled my cart into the appropriate aisle and came upon an entire row of sewing kits. Enough for each one of the soldiers in Irv’s group. Why not send them all a Valentine gift? I tossed the kits into my cart, counting them out and thinking of the men who’d been through so much.

Irv had first arrived at my clinic in the middle of an April downpour that reminded him of the soaking rains of Vietnam. “It was monsoon season when I got there,” he’d told me, burying his red-bearded face in his hands. “I’d just graduated high school and thought joining the Army would be a way to support myself. I was a good shot. That earned me a spot on the front lines. I’d never felt so alone, just me and that gun.” Near the end of his tour of duty, Irv was wounded. He took a bullet to the chest on September 24, 1968. The date resonated. On my fifteenth birthday, Irv was lying bleeding in the jungle, earning his purple heart.

Speaking of hearts...I thought, turning my cart toward the cash register. According to Irv, the men in his group had plenty of obstacles when it came to feeling loved and cared for. Broken families, broken relationships, broken dreams, broken hearts, to name just a few. Why not add chocolates and wrap each gift specially for men who might not have anyone to remind them that they were? At least Irv had a wife and a son back home praying for his recovery. Surely some of the others had no one. It was the least I could do, even if it might seem trivial in the scheme of things.

At home I filled a big cardboard carton with Styrofoam pellets and my gifts. I got carried away and drew a heart-shaped door on the box, where I wrote, “To my Valentine’s Day heroes: Open your door. Open it wide. Someone is standing outside.” I sent it off, worried Irv might think I had overstepped. These were grown men—did I really need to have decorated the box?

Around 2 p.m. on Valentine’s Day I got a phone call at the clinic. It was Irv. “I’ve got a few guys here with me by the phone,” he said. “They want to say something.”

Irv passed the phone to one of the soldiers. “I’ve never gotten anything for Valentine’s Day,” he told me. “I wish I’d saved a piece of chocolate, just to remember how it made me feel to get it. But it was so good, I ate it all!” His gratitude seemed completely out of proportion to my small gesture, but I could hear in his voice that he meant every word. One by one, all of the men took a turn on the phone, each with his own story of loneliness or love or loss.

“It was those sewing kits that did it,” Irv said when he got back on the line. “Something about sitting together, me teaching the guys how to stitch up those tattered clothes, sew on a button. We just started talking. Really talking. In a group that understood one hundred percent. It was a big deal for us.”

Not long after, I left the Mental Health Clinic to take a job in another department. Irv surprised me one day in the hospital parking garage.

“You’re home!” I said, with a big hug. He opened his wallet to show me a picture of his family on a riverbank.

“Take my boy fishing every chance we get,” he said proudly. “My wife brings a book. But she goes. She says I’m still tough, but I’m soft now. Can you beat that?”

Sticking out of the billfold was a piece of cardboard that looked as though it had been handled many times and shoved back into its handy spot. I recognized it easily—a heart shaped door, open wide.

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