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'An Immediate Need': San Antonio Nonprofit Sews Masks For Military, Veterans

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This week the Pentagon said people on Defense Department property must wear cloth masks if they can’t regularly keep a 6-foot social distance from others. The rule applies to service members, civilians, contractors and military family members – except when they’re in their own homes. 

The department also said it wouldn’t issue the masks — and told people to buy or sew their own.

San Antonio-based nonprofit Soldiers’ Angels is trying to fill the gap. The organization normally makes comfort items like blankets, scarves and pajamas for veterans and deployed service members.

But with coronavirus sweeping through military communities, they’ve switched gears, using their skills to churn out cloth masks.

“Our sewing and crafting team does those projects year round,” said Amy Palmer, Soldiers’ Angels CEO. “This was an opportunity to redirect their attention to something that was more of an immediate need.”

Palmer said demand for masks has skyrocketed in the last several weeks, so much so that she’s had to recruit help from the American Sewing Guild and social media groups around the country.

The Pentagon’s recent announcement has added to the pressure.

“We’re seeing more of the (military-affiliated) population that are needing them — anybody going onto the installation,” she said. “So, there's a lot of people who have not considered masks but will soon be needing them.”

Palmer, a civilian, shops at the commissaries on Joint Base San Antonio because they’re often able to keep in stock items that are scarce elsewhere. She’ll now need to cover her face to protect herself against the crowds.

Rates of infection among the active duty military have risen sharply over the last several weeks, with ships, aircraft and training pipelines feeling the impact. The veteran community has also seen coronavirus spread through Veterans Affairs hospitals and nursing homes, as the department tries to keep its healthcare workers safe with personal protective equipment.

Working with the VA’s Office of Volunteer Services, Soldiers’ Angels is contributing hand-sewn masks as part of that effort. Hospitals were initially reluctant to accept masks that were not N-95s. But that’s changed, Palmer said. 

“The number of VAs and other facilities that are requesting them has really grown rapidly over the last couple of weeks. So, we're making as many as we can, but we're not able to keep up with it.”

So far, Palmer says, Soldiers Angels has donated about 1,000 hand-sewn masks to prevent coronavirus from spreading on military bases and within VA hospitals.

The organization plans to begin offering meals three days a week for medical staff at Audie Murphy Memorial VA. 

Carson Frame can be reached at Carson@TPR.org and on Twitter at @carson_frame.

Carson Frame was Texas Public Radio's military and veterans' issues reporter from July 2017 until March 2024.