Family crafts shields of love for soldiers in Iraq

A photo of Cheryl Tanis taken while she was training, rests beside a stack of some of the unique quilts.
A photo of Cheryl Tanis taken while she was training, rests beside a stack of some of the unique quilts. (Debbie Noda/The Modesto Bee)

Stitch by stitch, a mom and two grandmothers quilt their covers of bulletproof love. Enough love, they hope, to shield a whole platoon of soldiers in Tikrit, Iraq.

Wilma Bartlett, 60, of Denair said with conviction, "Call it the full armor of God."

Her daughter, Sherry Tanis, 40, of Hughson, laughs in agreement. She started this Christmas project in August for her daughter, Cheryl Tanis, 19. It has been a snowball picking up downhill momentum ever since.

"Cheryl asked if we could help her make quilts for the whole platoon. She wanted to play secret Santa to everyone," Sherry Tanis said. The secret part won't work out. Each of 53 quilts has a dedication panel, complete with a Scripture and the tagline: "From the Tanis family."

When Cheryl Tanis was 17, she decided to join the Army Reserves. She wanted to serve her country. Bartlett was not happy with her granddaughter's choice or her daughter's decision to support it.

"I never would have signed the papers (required by the Army for minors to join a year early) and I was angry (with Sherry) because she did," she said.

Sherry Tanis said she had to.

"She was determined to join," she said. "When Cheryl sets a goal, that's it."

Mom gave her best example of Cheryl Tanis' determination.

"She never missed a day of school from kindergarten through high school," she said. "Even when (her dad) Mark won a trip to Disney World, Cheryl said she wouldn't go because she'd miss school.

"If I signed for her (joining the military), I figured she'd have more training before she could be called up,"

Cheryl Tanis did join and took basic training the summer between her junior and senior years at Hughson High School. When she was called to active duty this past summer, it was another ordeal for Bartlett.

"I cried," she said. "I told her I wouldn't let her get called up. I said I'd run over her with my car to keep her from going."

Bartlett said her granddaughter always had a ready answer for her.

"She warned me that I better not hurt her," she said. "She was the property of the United States government."

Sherry Tanis had her own way of coping.

"I told God, 'You gave her to me 19 years ago,' " Sherry recalled. " 'Now, I'm giving her back to you.' "

Bartlett doesn't worry about Cheryl's training or skill. She worries that her granddaughter's kind heart will keep her from protecting herself.

"I told her she had to follow her training and shoot," she said. "I'm afraid she will be in a position and won't be able to pull the trigger on another human being and then she would get hurt. But if she follows her training ... she's a marksman, you know."

When a comrade was injured last week, Cheryl Tanis quickly e-mailed her mother: "Don't worry. Everybody is OK. Don't listen to the news -- it makes everything seem worse than it is."

The family has followed that last piece of advice to avoid war news. Instead, Sherry Tanis and two grandmothers have buried themselves in the Christmas project.

And there has been plenty of help and encouragement. When a member of a foothill chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars saw grandma Josie Tanis working on the red, white and blue quilts, he asked what she was doing and then pledged to get his post to help with mailing costs.

Great-grandma Edith Thompson is 92 and can't hold the quilting needles anymore. But she spends time with the women while they work.

"She laughs and giggles and has a wonderful time," said Bartlett, her daughter.

At least 20 other people from the valley to the foothills will have had a hand in making and sending the quilts. When completed and mailed later this month, the presents will represent about $1,500 of expense and more than 1,000 hours of labor.

But the quilts are much more than gifts.

"Every stitch is a prayer that Cheryl's platoon comes home healthy -- spiritually, mentally and physically," Bartlett said. "They all have to stay safe. They are Cheryl's family now and if even one gets hurt, that will damage Cheryl."

And when the quilts are winging their way to Iraq, what then?

Tanis and Bartlett shuddered and shrugged. "We'll have to find something else to do for them."

Bee staff writer Roger Hoskins can be reached at rhoskins@modbee.com or 578-2311.