When Christina Finn’s son was deployed to Iraq in 2004, Christina had two choices: go stark raving mad with worry, or do something proactive and productive.
So the day her son, Ryan, left for Iraq, Christina and her husband, Daniel, a Purple Heart veteran of the Vietnam era, left for a reunion with Daniel’s army buddies in Washington, D.C.
But first, Christina wanted to go visit the Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
“I wanted to go to Walter Reed and bring something for the young people in the hospital,” Christina said. “As opposed to getting stuck in the past, I told Daniel we had to remain in the present but look to the future.”
An avid quilter and seamstress since she was a child, Christina carried six tiny patriotic pillows that she made to pass out to the young servicemen and servicewomen healing from their war injuries.
“Then reality hit and I realized my six little pillows weren’t going to cut it,” Christina said.
She founded the Patriotic Pillow Project, a national grass-roots organization with volunteers in 40 states that has distributed over 18,000 hand-stitched pillows to wounded soldiers recovering in military hospitals. The project also makes memorial pillows for the families of military members killed in action.
“My mother taught me how to sew,” Christina said. “I used to make my daughter’s Irish step-dancing costumes. My love and passion for creating artistic things with fabric is my mode of expression.”
Soon Christina enlisted the help of volunteers all around the country from the Patriotic Pillow Project’s home-centered base of operations in Oak Lawn. She tapped into church sewing circles, quilting guilds and community groups, mailing hundreds of Xeroxed pillow patterns.
Her youngest volunteer, 5-year-old Brady Rolig, of Kansas City, Kan., created 300 hand-stitched pillows. His mom and grandma helped him cut the material.
“He sent one to President Bush to help him sleep at night,” Christina said.
Christina personally invested “an extreme amount” of her own capital to get the project off the ground, and she continues to fill in the gaps. The largest expense is postage to ship pillow forms and patterns and cards that carry the Patriotic Pillow Project, as well as the finished pillows themselves.
Other than some donations of materials and funding from the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the project receives little outside funding.
“I don’t actively fundraise,” Christina said. “That’s not what my purpose is. I choose to spend my energy honoring this community. I give it up to God. If we need money, it will come in our direction.”
“The Pillow Lady,” as Christina has come to be known by grateful troops and their families, has used the project to bring attention to veterans’ needs.
In her tours of veterans’ hospitals, she’s seen every kind of devastating and life-maiming injury inflicted by largely improvised explosive devices or IEDs—brain injuries, triple amputees, soldiers with three-quarters of their skin burned off.
The Patriotic Pillow Project has made them feel less alone.
“During my husband’s war, we lost one in four. In this war, we lose one in 11, but those who are surviving are living with cataclysmic injuries,” Christina said. “The responsibility falls on their families to make sure these young heroes are well cared for 24/7. We just can’t cast them aside at age 19 to nursing homes broken and forgotten.”
This is one of a series of 9-11 portraits assembled by the Patch network for 9/11: The Decade After, a special report for Huffington Post. Find more photos on the Action America Facebook page.