As she watched the news coverage of Operation Desert Storm unfold on television in 1991, Alexandra Martinsen waited for the return of her highschool sweetheart and husband Paul, who was serving in the U.S. Marine Corp Infantry, wondering if he would come home.
Last month, nearly three decades later, she gave Paul Martinsen a quilt symbolizing her wait for him to come home after he took part in Austin’s first ever Honor Flight for veterans of recent wars.
Paul and Alexandra Martinsen both are heavily involved in Elgin’s American Legion Post 295; Alexandra leads the Post 295 Ladies Auxiliary, while Paul serves as the finance officer for the post.
Using the skills she has possessed since childhood, Alexandra’s service project for the American Legion is to make quilts for veterans who have taken an Honor Flight. Honor Flight organizations across the country organize trips to Washington, D.C. for groups of veterans to visit the memorials and monuments dedicated to their service. She has previously completed quilts for four other veterans from Post 295: Ignacio Perez, Tom Allen, Allison Tangeman and post commander John Quagliani.
“In the auxiliary, we each have our own service project that we like to do within the community,” Alexandra said. “I thought this was one way that I can positively contribute to the Legion community.”
The local branch, Honor Flight Austin, is open to World War II veterans statewide as well as Korea and Vietnam veterans in the 14 counties surrounding Austin. However, they provided their first trip to Washington, D.C. for combat veterans who served in conflicts from the Gulf War to the present, called the Desert Warrior Honor Flight. The trip was funded by 22Kill, a Dallas-based nonprofit which raises awareness of and combats suicide among veterans.
Paul served in the infantry of the Marine Corps during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 in Kuwait, which made him eligible for the Desert Warrior Honor Flight. When the district commander encouraged Paul to go on the flight, he declined twice, until his family and Quagliani pushed him to do it.
“It’s not something I normally wear on my shoulder,” he said about his military service.
After flying from Austin to Washington, D.C., the veterans were welcomed by representatives of 22Kill, and they were given a police escort as they took buses from the airport. During the trip, Paul got a chance to bond with veterans and fellow Marines, many of which were a generation younger than him.
“I was one of the older ones on the flight,” he said. “There were guys from Iraq and Afghanistan, and some of them are the age of my son, who is in the Marine Corps.”
For example, he got to know three of the “guardians,” which are Marine guards who accompany the Honor Flight groups and help the veterans during the trip. These three Marines were 22, 24 and 26 years old—the age of the Martinsens’ children.
While in Washington, D.C., the veterans got to see the monuments for each of their service branches—such as Marines, Air Force or Navy—as well as the monuments for past wars such as World War II, Vietnam and Korea. He was able to visit the Vietnam to see the name of his father’s first cousin, James Tedesco.
“(James Tedesco) died two years before I was born,” Paul said. “When I tried to go into the Marine Corp, (my father) would always say, my cousin got killed in Vietnam, and he was infantry—same job I had. That didn't stop me, just like it didn't stop my son.”
He had seen that monument, and his cousin’s name, once before when the Martinsen family lived on the east coast. However, the last time Paul was in Washington, D.C., the World War II memorial had not yet been completed, so he finally had a chance to see the new monument. Both of his grandfathers—Darrell “Lucky” Martinsen and Theo Ripperger—served in combat during World War II.
“They were rolling out World War II veterans and Vietnam veterans while we were visiting,” Paul recalled from his trip. “I was surprised how many times these World War II veterans in their 90s would (tell us), ‘Thank you for your service.’ I was like, I don't think I'm worthy of you telling me ‘Thank you for your service.’ They are the greatest generation, what they did was amazing.”
When she makes each of the quilts for Honor Flight veterans, Alexandra Martinsen adds a unique and distinct pattern for each quilt that fits each veteran’s service personality. For example, she used Navy symbols to make an original embroidery centerpiece for Quagliani’s quilt.
However, her quilt for Paul was much more personal.
“This time, it was Paul's turn,” she said. One side of Paul’s quilt features a pattern called a log cabin, which starts with one center square as strips of fabric, or “logs,” surround that square. The pattern represents the home, while the color of the center square can signify different messages, Alexandra said.
“In this case, the yellow-gold represents the light in the window waiting for a loved one to come home,” she said. “Paul is the person I made the quilt for, and he is also my husband, the one who I was waiting for to come home.”
Alexandra recalls the anxiety of watching the war unfold on the news, worrying about Paul.
“It was kind of crazy when he was over there, watching the news,” she said. “Desert Storm was really the first modern war where you could watch it 24 hours a day on the news, and on (the beginnings of) the internet. It was scary. It was very scary. And the reality was, maybe he might not come home.”
“(What makes this quilt unique),” she added, “is the symbolism about the block—the yellow square waiting for him to come home, keeping that light on in the window.”