Korean War veteran and prisoner of war TJ Martin has worked behind the scenes to honor York County veterans and promote their causes.
Martin, 84, was nearly speechless last week when he was honored for his dedication and commitment by strangers who spent hours stitching together an act of thanks.
The thanks came in the form of a red, white and blue handmade quilt crafted by volunteers with Quilts of Valor, a national nonprofit organization that makes and presents quilts to veterans as an award for military service.
“I want you to feel the warmth of the quilt,” Quilts of Valor volunteer Harvey Mayhill told Martin as he wrapped the quilt around him. “I want you to feel the warmth of the love of the many people who put these quilts together.”
Mayhill, of Rock Hill, presented the quilt to Martin last week at York’s American Legion Post 66, where Martin has been an active member. Martin also received an award for his 60 years of membership with the Legion.
“It just absolutely floored me,” Martin said of the honor.
Joe Medlin, director of York County Veteran Affairs, said Martin deserves recognition for his patriotism and his love of fellow veterans.
“TJ Martin is truly an American hero,” Medlin said. “He has been the driving force, most of the time behind the scenes, in many of the programs that take place on Veterans Day and Memorial Day.”
Jim Carter, commander of York’s American Legion post, agreed. Carter said the York post is lucky to have a member with Martin’s commitment.
“He’s a fierce advocate for veterans, and he’ll do anything he can. He has a lot of connections, and he uses those connections to get things done,” Carter said.
Mayhill said Quilts of Valor began about a decade ago in Delaware, when a woman made a quilt for her son, who had been deployed to Iraq, but had no way to send it to him. Instead, she gave the quilt to a wounded veteran at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
The hospitalized veteran was so touched by the gift, Mayhill said, the woman organized a quilt-making project with her friends to benefit more veterans.
In the first year the project gave 100 quilts to veterans, Mayhill said. As of last week, he said, the organization has given out more than 97,000 quilts.
The quilts are made by volunteers across the United States, who also pay for the materials, which run about $250 per quilt. The quilts are valued from $800 to $1,000 each, including labor, he said.
“We consider it the highest award a civilian can give to a veteran,” Mayhill said. “The quilts are not given as a gift, they’re presented as an award for that person’s dedicated service in the military.”
Recipients are nominated by family members or others. Mayhill said he nominated Martin because of his many activities in veterans affairs and his U.S. Army service in Korea and time as a prisoner of war.
Martin, who was a POW for about 2 1/2 years during the Korean War, was 21 years old when he was first captured. “We had been overrun by about 10 to one, and they killed a goodly portion of our people,” he said. “There were only a few of us left.”
Some of the captured prisoners were shot, said Martin, who said he was tortured during his captivity. He said he weighed 190 pounds at the time of his capture, and lost 100 pounds in captivity.
At one point, he said he was among 28 prisoners released from the prison camp, but he and 24 others were recaptured by the Chinese before they were able to cross a river to reach the safety of American forces.
Martin said he was helping another prisoner who had been shot in the mouth reach a helicopter so the man could receive medical attention when he was recaptured. The injured man, he said, was among the three who escaped.
“It cost me two more years in the prison camp,” he said.
Martin has been active in a variety of causes involving veterans. He has for years organized the annual Veterans Day parade in York and the Memorial Day service honoring veterans at Lakeview Memory Gardens.
He also advocated for the names of veterans from York County who died on the battlefield to be engraved on the veterans monument at Lakeview.
The monument now bears 215 names of veterans from all conflicts, he said.
Martin, a retired businessman and vice commander of the York Legion post, also works with York County Veterans Affairs and is a national service officer.
Martin said when he returned to the United States, he was asked if he believed the government owed him anything.
He said he was owed nothing “because I was allowed to come back to this great country.”
Martin said his own experience made him believe he needs to get involved “working for the freedom and the peace we have here in America.”