The Department of Defense awarded Cathy Hammel, a Jefferson resident and military widow, with a certificate of honor, for her "sacrifices at home while her spouse served in the name of freedom and democracy during the Vietnam War." She's made more than 600 quilts for homeless veterans.  BRANDON HURLEY | JEFFERSON HERALDThe Department of Defense awarded Cathy Hammel, a Jefferson resident and military widow, with a certificate of honor, for her "sacrifices at home while her spouse served in the name of freedom and democracy during the Vietnam War." She's made more than 600 quilts for homeless veterans.  BRANDON HURLEY | JEFFERSON HERALDThe late Tom Hammel is seen here outside one of his trucks during deployment in Vietnam. He passed away last year from complications brought on by Agent Orange.


Widow of Vietnam vet shares passion for quilting, military

By Brandon Hurley
Managing Editor


Cathy Hammel is forever connected to the military.

Through family, through friendship and through compassion, she’s carried on a tradition which has spanned her entire life.  
Hammel set out to make 559 quilts, one for each day her husband, Tom was deployed in the jungle. She blew past that goal quite some time ago, and now creates wonderfully warm masterpieces for homeless veterans.
Her continued dedication to the military earned her the Vietnam War Commemoration certificate of honor.

Cathy’s late husband, Tom Hammel spent almost two years in Vietnam, and though he lived for nearly another 50 years, his deployment eventually led to a slow death.
Tom, who stood six-feet, six-inches in height, was drafted at the ripe age of 22. He was raised in Dunn Center, North Dakota, which held a population of 99 at the time. Cathy’s dad fought in World War II while Tom was named after his uncle, Tom and Quinton, who were both prisoners of war during World War II, captured by the Japanese military and forced into hard labor. Luckily, Tom and Quinton were rescued from the Japan manufacturers.
Tom spent two months at sea, unable to receive any type of communication from the mainland, which included phone calls and mail.
Then one day, he got an unusual onslaught of mail from a stranger.

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Cathy’s daily letters went unread for two months, adamant she found her chance to meet someone special.

She was born and raised in Columbus, Indiana though she was in search of a new start. She headed up to North Dakota to run away from home. As the oldest of seven children, she was ready for something fresh. What she found was a life-changing courtship. First, she needed to get north, which required her to hop on board a mail train. The trip lasted 24 hours, with the train stopping at each town to pick up that day’s mail. But once the locomotive arrived in the Great Plains, Cathy could feel her entire life change.

“The first time I was there, I knew North Dakota was home,” she said.

Cathy enrolled at a college in Dickinson, North Dakota. Her college roommate was friends with Tom, and knew he was getting deployed. She also was keenly aware of Cathy’s fondness to pen letters. So, of course, the next step was to put the two in touch – Tom, a soon-to-be lonely solider in a faraway world, and Cathy, a young woman hundreds of miles from home. It was a natural connection.

“From the time he was drafted until he came home, I wrote letters and sent packages,” Cathy said.

She never had a chance to meet Tom before he left for Vietnam.

“I was writing to a total stranger,” Cathy said. “He never wrote about the war.”

Cathy’s initial stack of letters, two months worth, was dumped on Tom when he touched shore in Vietnam. Though Cathy said she no longer has the letters, they must’ve caused a stir in Tom, because he began responding immediately.
The future husband and wife went on their first date in December of 1967 at a local high school basketball game , nearly two full years after Cathy’s initial wave of letters. The relationship moved fast, due in large part to their frequent and in-depth communications, tying the knot in April of 1968, a marriage which zoomed past the 50-year mark.

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Agent Orange devastated Tom, slowly working its way through his body over several productive decades. He wouldn’t shed much light on his time in Vietnam, which in the end, was fine with his wife.

“I’m not sure I wanted to know,” Cathy said, referencing the tragedies battles with the Vietcong often produced.  

Tom did tell Cathy he was a member of the motor division, tasked with operating a rector.
Tom’s tour-specific duties had him near Agent Orange numerous times, almost daily. The chemical - which was used as warfare by the U.S. military, was meant to poison the plants in Vietnam, loosening the foliage and making it easier to see the enemy. Instead, it contaminated entire ecosystems, which affected millions of people, including American soldiers. Agent Orange was stored in the town of Da Nang where Tom was stationed – contact was unavoidable.
Tom’s job was to track down decommissioned military vehicles, ones which were blown up either by mines or enemy missiles. Often times, dead, mangled bodies were still in the vehicle when Tom arrived.

That certainly took a toll.

But, Cathy knew how important Tom’s military role was to him, which was why she kept a picture of the soldier standing in front of a truck on her mirror in her dorm room. Though Tom was thousands of miles away, he was never too far from her line of sight.
He was as talented as a motorist as they came, earning a citation for 9,000 miles of safe driving in Vietnam. His success behind the wheel carried into his life stateside, where he became a truck driver for Coke, which led him to Muscatine and West Branch.
The Hammel’s oldest son, Bill, was living in Jefferson, which brought his parents to down. Del built their current house in 2003, where Cathy still resides.

She began quilting a few years back, when Tom came down with his initial bout of Parkinson’s, perhaps searching for a distraction before ultimately spotting a need for warmth. She attacked it viciously, stealing a notion from her husband.
Churches came flocking to her for quilts, hoping to find warmth for the homeless. She began receiving classrooms full of blue jeans, sheets, flannel, towels and blankets.
Cathy’s goal was a little under 600 quilts – 559 to be exact, the number of days Tom was deployed. She easily smashed that mark, and with help from several other entities and church organizations, later surpassed 1,000 quilts. Tom was a team player, calling on his clean driving record to hand-deliver the quilts from Perry to Des Moines, dropping them off at the VA hospital.  

“Most people thing of a quilt as a hug,” Cathy said. “They were thanking us, but I wanted to say thank you to them.”

It takes Cathy roughly 30-40 hours to sew a quilt. She is always on the hunt for new material, making sure to touch each square at least four times throughout the process.
Tom was stricken hard by Parkinson’s Disease as Cathy’s quilting ratcheted up. Life seemed relatively normal, all things considered, until Tom began coughing and gasping for air.

He fell sick on a Friday and passed away two days later on Sunday, sudden and heartbreaking at the age of 75. While the Hammel’s family doctor isn’t for certain of the cause, Tom and Cathy’s daughter has developed three rare cancers throughout her lifetime, which is likely connected to genetic defects of Agent Orange.

Still, Cathy pushes forward, making quilts for the less fortunate.
The Department of Defense awarded Cathy with a certificate of honor, for her “sacrifices at home while her spouse served in the name of freedom and democracy during the Vietnam War. Our nation is forever indebted to you and extends the deepest respect and admiration.”
She continues to serve her country through quilting, carrying on the memory of her heroic husband.

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