Backstory: Unflagging devotion

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

Trembling hands reach out to brush the delicate embroidery of a white star on a navy-blue field. Tears glisten in pale blue eyes and a soft voice begins to quaver as Charmane Bellamy talks about her job as a seamstress. All around, the Juki sewing machines whir relentlessly, underscoring her words with the steady staccato of one of our nation's oldest industries.

From her perch high atop the factory floor, she pulls red and white stripes through her hands over and over, being careful to keep the seams neat and tidy. Always a perfectionist, she is even more prudent here. This isn't just any flag – it's Old Glory. And this isn't just any version – it's an interment flag to drape a veteran's coffin, one last embrace from a grateful country.

Ms. Bellamy is one of 27 people working the flag line at Phoenix Industries in Huntsville, Ala., and the company is one of only seven in the US approved to supply the 5-by-10-foot ceremonial flags to the US Department of Veterans Affairs.

As the nation celebrated the Fourth of July holiday with the usual pride and patriotism, Phoenix had just turned out its 1 millionth flag – a milestone the company will recognize with a special program Wednesday. Amid the piles of fabric and clacking machines, it's clear this isn't just another textile factory turning out another pair of jeans. This product infuses many workers with a sense that they're doing more than collecting a paycheck, especially in a time of war.

The factory is notable, too, because of the people doing the work: 85 percent of those on the flag line have some type of vocational disability, ranging from deafness to autism. "We live and die together," says Bryan Dodson, president of the Huntsville Rehabilitation Foundation, a local nonprofit that operates Phoenix Industries. "That's what the military teaches: My life depends on you and yours depends on me. If one of us is hurting, we're all hurting."

For the past 11 years, Phoenix has produced an average of 83,333 flags per year – 18 percent of the government's total annual supply. But recently the company was asked to double production to 650 flags per day. There are strict requirements: The flags must be 100 percent American made, from the cotton to the grommets.

It's a painstaking 21-step process, and every employee plays a hands-on role. It begins in a small room adjacent to the factory, where a "bologna slicer" cuts 72-foot rolls of cotton into smaller rolls. On the factory floor, employees shear the rolls into 125-yard red and white stripes. Next, the stripes are separated and trimmed into the seven short stripes that comprise the top of the flag beside the canton and the six long stripes that make up the bottom. The canton is shipped in long bolts from a plant in North Carolina, where workers carefully stitch each star by hand and set it within its field.

Like America itself, the people on the flag line come from all walks of life, ranging in age from 20 to 72. Some have GEDs, while others have doctorates. Some have never held a job, while others are returning to the workforce after an interruption or setback. Some have mental or emotional challenges, while others have health issues. Together, they work as a team.

Supervisor Shirley Lanza gazes across the floor, calling employees by name. "That's Alandress Caudle," she says, pointing to a one-man dynamo at the end of the line.

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."

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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