Military spouse helps heal heartbreak of fallen soldiers

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas-- Tia Curtis, Team Goodfellow spouse, poses for a photo while working on a quilt. Curtis has created dozens of quilts and bags for military widows using parts of the fallen service member’s uniform. (Courtesy photo)

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas-- Tia Curtis, Team Goodfellow spouse, poses for a photo while working on a quilt. Curtis has created dozens of quilts and bags for military widows using parts of the fallen service member’s uniform. (Courtesy photo)

GOODFELLOW AIR FORCE BASE, Texas-- -- The saying goes "you can't judge a book by its cover." That statement has never been truer when talking about Tia Curtis.

From the outside, people see Curtis as a fun-loving Army spouse and stay-at-home mother of three children. She has bubbly, blond hair, pep in her step and a smile for everyone.
However, that's just the surface - one piece of her personality. Dig a little deeper and you find an abundance of creativity, strength, inspiration and compassion.

Her father was a soldier, so she grew up in dozens of states and several countries following her Dad. She became a highly skilled nurse in the Army, met her husband while in the Army and has become a stay-at-home mom with a passion for quilting.

She began a small, but unique sewing and quilting business in 2005, sewing bags for friends. However, her business's scope and meaning grew into something bigger and more personal after witnessing the grief of others.

Many members have seen women carrying bags and purses made from the uniforms of their service member. Curtis has been sewing those for years. However, a chance meeting with a widow when she lived in Fort Hood, Texas, changed the meaning of the bags.

A young woman asked her to make a bag from her husband's uniform. After talking more, Curtis realized the young woman was a very recent widow. Her husband was killed in Iraq two weeks prior and she wanted the uniform made into a bag she could carry with her. Moved by her story, Curtis made her bag and then three more for her family. She didn't charge her for them; it was something she wanted to do for this young widow. She called these bags "Hero Bags."

During one of her husband's many deployments to Iraq, two soldiers in her husband's unit were killed. The wives were connected through the Fort Hood Family Readiness Group, an internal support system for their unit. One of the men killed was Army Sgt. 1st Class Bryant Herlem. His widow, Lanita, asked Curtis to make a bag out of his uniform for her. This time it was personal. Curtis said she made many bags for Lanita and her extended family.

Curtis said every bag she makes is heartbreaking. It takes nerves of steel to sew a Hero Bag. One order she fulfilled was for Army Capt. Timothy Moshier, who was killed in Iraq in 2006. His widow had heard of Curtis and her Hero Bags and was determined to find her even if Curtis was stationed in Australia. Moshier's widow had a baby while he was deployed. The child would never meet his father. Curtis not only made her the bag, but sewed together a handmade quilt out of the leftover fabric from his flight suit- the arms. Curtis still chokes up when recalling making the baby's quilt.

"His father could still hold him, even if it was just in a quilt," she said.

Since 2006, Curtis said she has filled more than 30 orders for Hero Bags, making more than 90 bags and quilts for the families of the fallen soldiers. She's never charged for them, nor does she seek attention. Her customers found her. Making these bags and quilts takes a lot out of her, she said, because creating every bag is an intensely personal and emotional experience.
"You have to steam iron the uniform before you can sew the bag," she said. "Because of the steam, I can smell the soldier who wore that uniform. He's gone. I feel terrible; the wife should be the one to have the last scent of her husband, not me. It brings me to tears every time. "

Curtis said people mourn in different ways.

"I have a flight suit in my closet that I've had since 2009," she said. "His widow hasn't been ready for me to begin until recently. I've just started on her Hero Bag and Quilt. It's been three years and it's okay. She needed to take as much time as she needed."

That quilt belongs to the widow of Army Chief Warrant Officer 3 Phillip Windorski, a veteran helicopter pilot who was shot down and killed in Iraq with three others in 2009. Using Windorski's flight suit and some cloud-print fabric, Curtis designed a quilt with four gold stars, one for each of the fallen. His widow thought it was perfect because Windorski was always more comfortable in the sky, close to the clouds.

She said her passion is quilting, but her passion is really about helping people heal through her craft. The unassuming Army spouse and stay-at-home mom still laughs, stitches and smiles. And when someone needs her, she'll use her unique talent to sew together a sweet memory.