To one Army mom, love is a pillow, held together by the fabric of war, stuffed with compassion and sewn up with the thread of understanding.
To Carol Armstrong, the only way to ensure her son was in safe hands while deployed nearly 7,000 miles away in Afghanistan, was to provide him and his comrades with a soft place to lay their heads, no matter where they were, no matter what their situation.
For the past three years, one pocket field pillow at a time, Armstrong has been providing 10th Mountain Division (LI) Soldiers with a touch of home that conveniently fits in their pocket.
In 2009, while Armstrong's son, Spc. Nicholas Armstrong, was deployed with 1st Battalion, 3nd Infantry Regiment, she decided she wanted to make something that would show her son she was thinking about him.
She wanted to create a small, useful item that would remind her son of home. Armstrong, who owns an embroidery business, decided that a 10- by 12-inch pillow fit the bill – a necessity that fit nicely with all the other goodies in a care packages she sent her son.
Her plan to send a piece of home to her son soon became a mission to send a piece of gratitude to Soldiers in her son's company, expanding brigadewide, and finally reaching across the entire division.
"It was pitiful," she said, recalling the photo her son sent her of a Soldier lying on the ground with his head propped against his helmet.
"The picture that he sent, and the fact … that he said (the pillow) was great, is what started (the project)," Armstrong explained.
"Unless if you're a parent and you've sent one of your children into a war zone – it's different when it's your husband or wife – but when it's your child, it's probably the hardest thing any parent could do," she said.
Armstrong began the project as a solo mission, but she soon found that friends and neighbors in her Navy-saturated town of Chesapeake, Va., were eager to help out.
After finishing the first four pillows for her son and his "truck buddies" – as she lovingly refers to his brothers-in-arms – Armstrong realized there were a few extra yards of fabric left over.
Armstrong, a former Navy intelligence officer, began asking her son questions about the number of Soldiers in his platoon. For the next three days she set forth, cutting fabric, sewing and stuffing 35 pillows for the unit.
She eventually sewed and stuffed enough pillows for her son's battalion.
"By that time, my husband figured out that we weren't going out to eat very much. He asked me where our going-out-to-eat money was going," Armstrong said.
When she finally came clean, Armstrong thought her "gruff" husband would be upset, but instead he told her to be sure she sent enough pillows to their son's unit.
"I got pretty good at sewing pillows," Armstrong said, noting she can sew a pillow in less than 10 minutes. "I love to make things and be creative."
She also embroidered the first 5,000 pillows with a yellow ribbon. To date, Armstrong has sent more than 13,000 pillows to service members. She now embroiders a ribbon on every thousandth pillow.
To sew and stuff that many pillows, one must enlist the help of others, which she found through monetary and material donations, as well as those willing to contribute time to her project.
Through mostly word of mouth, Armstrong has enlisted the help of many people, including fellow seamstresses, church groups, school classes and even the occasional stranger with a big heart.
Through her ventures, Armstrong met a girl whom she describes as "the quintessential Southern belle," whose father is a plant manager for the factory that manufactures Army combat uniform pattern fabric. He told Armstrong they would help in any way possible.
"The fabric was pretty expensive," explained Armstrong, noting she was thankful when the plant manager agreed to send leftover ACU pattern scraps from the textile mill.
"Five or six times a year – or whenever I ask for it – they will send me 500 or 600 pounds of scraps," she explained.
Although she does not pay for the fabric, Armstrong reimburses the cost of shipping.
The cost of supplies – thread, needles and stuffing – is covered by donations. Members of local churches, schools and even a sorority have donated money and time to the project.
While looking for a community service project for her students to get involved with, Barb Gray, a teacher from Matawan-Aberdeen Middle School in Cliffwood, N.J., came across Armstrong's blog. She volunteered her students to sew and stuff pillows.
"She's not military. She doesn't know anybody in the Army, which I think is really neat," said Armstrong, who said she is "awed" by the number of people who want to help with her project, yet they have no military connection.
"A majority of the volunteers have no military connection at all," she added. "These folks here jump up to volunteer."
Armstrong holds a sew-in every two weeks, and the group usually sews and stuffs up to 300 pillows.
"This is probably the most rewarding project I've ever been involved in," she explained, noting she gets "tickled" when she receives thank-you notes from Soldiers.
Armstrong has learned that an involved project comes with a price, though – a price that she cannot always pay.
Too often, Armstrong has been low on funds and afraid she won't have enough money to continue sending pillows. She has transferred her own money into the Operation PFP account on various occasions, and sometimes anonymous donors deposit money into the account. One person donated $1,000 into the Operation PFP account.
There have been days when she frets over not having enough money to ship boxes, and on the same day, a friend or school group will present her with a check.
"I don't worry about the money anymore," Armstrong said. "I don't even have to blog about it – it just kind of happens."
Despite potential low funds, Armstrong said she will continue to send pillows to 10th Mountain Soldiers, even though her son recently moved on from the division. She said she shows her support for the military – not for herself or her son – but for the Families.
"(The first year) I threw everything I had into pillow making," Armstrong explained. "Every time I read that a 10th Mountain Soldier had been killed in Afghanistan, I wrote his parents a letter. It was the worst year of my life.
"I still can see the faces of the six kids that didn't come home with Nick," she continued. "I can't even begin to imagine what those six mothers have gone through. Just because my son came home doesn't mean we can stop supporting the troops."
Although she prefers to send pillows to 10th Mountain Soldiers, she said she would never turn down a request from other service members – that even includes Marines.
"I know how Marines feel about the Army … no Marine wants to be caught dead with something that has to do with the Army," she said.
However, parents sometimes send their Marine an ACU pattern pocket field pillow.
"One Marine kept his (pillow), and now, all of a sudden, his platoon wants them. They don't care what they look like," she said.
She will send several boxes of the Army pattern pillows to a group of Marines, joking that she might just “throw a couple pink ones in there."
In addition to sending pillows to deployed service members, Armstrong has sent several dozen pillows to places like Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany; Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, D.C.; and Brooke Army Medical Center, Texas.
Only once has Armstrong met someone who had actually seen a pillow being used by a Soldier. While speaking at a Military Officers of America luncheon, a retired Army colonel told her that as he was welcoming troops home at the tarmac, he met a Soldier who was sporting a pillow on his rucksack.
"Anyone who benefits from a man or woman in uniform – we owe them everything and anything," Armstrong said. "I would never want my children to feel anything less than gratitude and thanks to everyone who has ever worn a uniform in the United States."
For more information, visit Operation PFP's blog, justforbabygifts.wordpress.com, or email Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org