The Combat Quilter: Andrew Lee finds a way to cope with PTSD, through service to other veterans

Combat Quilter
Posted at 4:34 PM, Sep 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-24 19:47:58-04

SYMRNA, Tenn. (WTVF) — Each morning on the Tennessee Army National Guard base in Symrna, traditions are woven into every part of life. So much so, the soldiers know each chant and song by heart.

"Proud of all we have done, fighting till the battle’s won, and the Army goes rolling along," sang the soldiers in unison.

But in this leadership classroom, it's Andrew Lee pulling the strings. Teaching is a second act for this 20-year veteran of military service. Before that, he did two deployments to Iraq, where some of the things he saw forced him to detach from any emotion. "If you see a kid standing on the side of the road doing this because he’s hungry, but you’ve got to be reactive, that his father is standing behind him with an AK-47 ready to use it," Lee told NewsChannel 5.

Mental scars from the front lines only really started to manifest when he got home from deployment. "I remember going to the grocery store and not being able to walk 10 or 12 feet into the aisle because I instantly felt trapped. And that was part of my PTSD trigger that my emotional panic mode, fight or flight would kick in and I just couldn’t do it," said Lee.

So he started looking for an outlet. "The mind-numbing or emotional-numbing, or life-numbing thing, it just didn’t work. Wasn’t rewarding, wasn’t satisfying," he said.

That's when this teacher found something new to piece his life back together. "I felt that in my journey of quilting, that I should share some things that I’ve learned," said Lee.

A couple of times a year, you can find Lee in a very different kind of classroom. He teaches quilting classes at Stitcher's Playhouse in Smyrna, where he is by far the youngest and the only male.

"He first came to the shop about four years ago to buy a spool of thread, and we all fell in love with him," said Ann Barnett, one of his students.

Lee's introduction into the world of quilting is quite the spin of the yarn itself. It began as a way to surprise his wife with an activity they could do together. "I checked all the boxes of my husband duty, tried something different that most people wouldn’t do, but in doing so I got hooked," said Lee.

He quickly realized it wasn't just a soothing activity, he was also really good. "I went ahead, and went big," Lee said.

Iwo Jima Quilt
This Iwo Jima quilt, crafted by Andrew Lee, is enshrined in the International Quilt Museum.

In fact, he already has a mosaic quilt depicting the hoisting of the flag at Iwo Jima enshrined in the International Quilt Museum and is working on another piece of the FDNY firemen raising the American flag at Ground Zero after 9/11, that once it's completed, will hang in the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City. "I felt like this one monumental event would be the one that would make a difference," he said.

9/11 Quilt
Andrew Lee unfurls his 9/11 mosaic quilt that he's working on. Upon completion, it will be on display at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York City.

But Andrew's proudest work, isn't art, it's creations that rest around the shoulders of veterans.

"The real reason why I lured people here -- Quilts of Valor," said Lee, back in his military classroom.

Andrew crafts for Quilts of Valor, an organization that bestows personalized bundles of thread to deserving service members. "The quilts of valor foundation wishes to recognize you for your service to our nation," Lee explained to the class.

His favorite part is surprising the recipient. Sgt. Charles Turner thinks he's just here to be an extra hand, as Andrew presents the quilt to someone else. But instead, it's Charles that was wrapped in stitches of love.

"As an expression of gratitude, we award you this quilt of valor," said Lee. "And the recipient -- Sgt. Turner."

Turner's face softens for a moment as the reality sets in, and then he gives out the tiniest smile. The kind of subdued joy and stoicism you come to expect in the armed forces.

"Thank you, thank you," Sgt. Turner said to Lee as he shook his hand.

"I feel like a quilt gives those people a little better fighting chance to deal with those demons, to show someone does care," said Lee.

It's that moment of surprise, every time he gifts a quilt, that has brought Lee away from being cold and detached. "That was my first opportunity, after being deployed to really truly honestly feel something," explained Lee.

Which is why Lee has chosen this non-traditional ministry in a military world that is anything but. "I’ve always said that I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed to be a light to the world, and this is my opportunity to be a light to the world," said Lee.

That has also brought joy in this new quilting world of his. "You can tell it’s like a puzzle, and the more pieces you add, then the picture finally comes into focus. That’s the part I love," Barnett said.

Because when Lee is the one sewing, it's a chance to heal others while also patching up himself. "This is the one thing that I can do, that I can honestly say I’ve put 100% in, in an attempt to be a productive member of society and give back to all those who have given before me," said Lee.