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Backstory: Unflagging devotion

Workers at Phoenix Industries, many of them disabled, create interment flags for veterans.

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She smiles as he throws his whole body into folding flags, his lithe frame jerking back and forth in a red, white, and blue blur of work-meets-interpretive dance. Mr. Caudle, 30, has been with Phoenix Industries since he was 19, finding an easy home for his high-energy personality. Swiftly, he weaves between tables, moving materials and refreshing supplies. "He takes care of everything," Ms. Lanzo says. "He's so fast and so efficient that when we have to take over for him, we just can't keep up."

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And then there's Richard Kelly. Lanzo admits that when he first came here four years ago, his attention to detail left them both frustrated at times. Mr. Kelly loves to keep things neat and orderly, to the point that in the beginning, he would slow the line down to carefully fold a flag or examine a flaw. In time, he's learned to be precise but efficient, finding a happy medium.

A quick stop by his station elicits little more than a glance as he whips each flag across the table, searching for flaws and snipping stray threads. "You can stand there as long as you don't get in the way," he says, smiling. He seems to enjoy his moment in the spotlight, but makes it clear he won't stop to chat. Any fingers that get too close to his scissors are in danger of being snipped like the threads he seeks.

With a matter-of-fact tone, he explains how the job has set him free. A few years ago, he was 27 and still living at home in what he describes as a "stressful" environment punctuated by daily clashes with a stepfather who couldn't understand him. Passionately artistic and relentlessly organized, Kelly relishes his new one-bedroom apartment. There, he's able to stay up late, composing orchestral music and filling notebooks with reams of poetry and fiction.

Tossing a flag back to another employee, he calls out "Grommet missing!" then turns to address a stack of flags that have fallen to the floor. "That can't be good," he says. "Oh, here's the problem." In a flash, the flags are back in place.

Nearby, Jean Wright hems stripes together. Wright served 15 years in the Army and came to Phoenix after injuring herself on another job. Without hesitation, she says that even though she "couldn't tell a bobbin from a kill switch" when she started, without the flag line she would have ended up on welfare. She knows that one day one of those flags will drape her own coffin, but it's something she tries not to think about.

Shirley Lanza can't forget. Her grandson just returned from Iraq and her brothers both served in the military. "Every time I see a flag go out the door, I wonder who it's going to be for," she says. "It just hits close to home."

Bellamy agrees. Her son, Michael, who enlisted after being swept up in the fervor of post-9/11 patriotism, recently returned from serving with the Air Force in Iraq. He's in her thoughts a lot as she sews. "It makes it more meaningful to know that one of these days we may receive one of these," she says. She pauses for a moment, then turns away, as if reminded that more pressing matters await. With a flip of the switch, her machine is humming again, the stripes running effortlessly through her hands.

The shift is almost over, but work remains.

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