Suzy's Fancy - ARCHIVES

by Suzanne Labry

Tom Korn’s Military

Medal Quilts

Column #141

PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM KORNDuring the Vietnam War, Tom Korn served as an engineman on a nuclear submarine in the South China Sea.


He was what is known as “blue water Navy,” meaning that he was assigned to deep waters near the conflict, but not close enough to land to be considered “in country.”


Nevertheless, from 1968 to 1971, Korn was in a perilous position, down far below the surface where at any moment, his sub could have been the target of a depth charge - an anti-submarine warfare weapon designed to destroy its target by subjecting it to a powerful hydraulic shock. To say the situation was stressful is an understatement.


These days, Korn spends his time on dry land in calmer conditions, often sitting at his Pfaff longarm quilting machine working on quilts for clients.


Two years ago, after retiring from his career as an electrical contractor and finding himself with time on his hands, Korn’s sisters—he has seven of them—taught him to quilt.


Since then, he has become something of a celebrity in his hometown of Salem, Oregon. Although male quilters are no longer considered an oddity, they are still uncommon enough to draw attention. Korn is one of only three male members in the 365-member Mid-Valley Quilt Guild of Salem.


However, it is neither his gender nor the fact that he is a professional quilter that earns Korn the most recognition. The spotlight is due to a unique set of 20 quilts that Korn has designed and made.


He was decorated with two medals for his service in Vietnam: the Vietnam Service Medal and the National Defense Service Medal.


As is the case with all military medals, each one is attached to a ribbon, and the ribbon has a specific design and color pattern indicating the military campaign with which it is associated. One day while looking at his medals, Korn had an inspiration. He decided to make a series of quilts using the designs and colors of the ribbons associated with military medals. He calls them his “ribbon quilts.”


Each quilt measures 15 inches tall and 45 inches wide. He entered some of them in the Oregon State Fair, and took home a blue ribbon for innovation in 2013 and two red ribbons in 2014. The quilts have been used as a backdrop for Veterans Day celebrations and were recently displayed at the Northwest Quilters 41st Annual Quilt Show in Portland, Oregon. He has even created a couple of ribbon quilts for an official at the Department of Justice.


The ribbon quilts are a way for Korn to honor the men and women who have served in military campaigns. And the public reaction to them, especially from veterans, has been gratifying to him.


“I think it’s a good thing to remember that a lot of good people died fighting for this country and the quilts bring back strong memories,” Korn says. “At the state fair, I saw a gentleman standing in front of my ribbon quilt with his head hanging, his chin on his chest. I went up to him and I asked him, ‘Do you recognize that?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, but I’d forgotten up until now.’ He had tears in his eyes.”


Korn also makes quilts for the Quilts of Valor Foundation, an organization that provides quilts to veterans and service men and women, and he regularly quilts with a group called the Quilting Sisters (they call him the “hairy-faced sister”) that makes quilts for a variety of charitable causes. It’s clear that although Tom Korn’s military service ended decades ago, his service to others continues unabated.


Tom Korn can be reached via email at