Houston Plant Proud To Produce Purple Hearts

Purple Hearts described as high-demand item; wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased demand.

HOUSTON (AP) - A small manufacturing plant in Tomball owes much of its success to a product nobody wants.

The 60 or so employees at Graco Awards make Purple Hearts, among other medals, primarily for the U.S. government.

Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased demand for the medals, which are presented to soldiers wounded in combat and to the survivors of those killed on the battlefield. But Tom Tucker, who bought Graco Awards three years ago, says the medals are always big sellers either to veterans of previous wars seeking replacements or wholesalers who service military bases.

''We have always had trouble keeping Purple Hearts in stock,'' Tucker said. ''Before the war, during the war, it's just always a high-demand item.''

Tucker, a former Army captain, doesn't need publicity to sell his product, and he rarely even lets outsiders into his unassuming 3,000-square-foot plant. But, with the approach of Memorial Day, he gave the Houston Chronicle a tour.

The first thing a visitor notices after entering the plant is the strong epoxy aroma. Along a hallway hang displays of Graco-made medals, including obscure campaign medals issued for the Spanish-American War and National Guard medals for each state.

Tucker leads the way to a work area where tables are loaded with ribbons, packing boxes and other materials. Vietnam War medals, tucked into small plastic bags, are piled high on one table. The medals, which all had the same yellow ribbons, need to be packed into boxes for shipment to meet a pressing deadline, Tucker said.

Onward through a dingy white door are three women stationed at tidy work areas, where they hand-paint and apply finishing touches to nearly all of the medals that leave the plant.

It's intricate work that requires magnifying lenses to paint the tiny details, such as the small green leaves that surround George Washington's red-and-white family crest on the Purple Heart.

Rebecca Aguilar just finished a tray of 24 combat-infantry badges. She applied the light-blue background around the crossed rifles.

The three-year Graco worker said she can paint 200 Purple Hearts an hour. Those medals, in particular, take more time than most.

Her supervisor's son, David Lowder, wears at least two medals made by Graco on his Navy uniform.

''He has the War on Terror Service medal,'' said Janette Harper, the sailor's mother and a 10-year Graco employee. ''We're the only ones who have done those contracts, so it definitely came from here.''

On the wall above Aguilar's desk are yellowed newspaper clippings about those awarded Graco medals, including one recent article about a Medal of Honor recipient.

''Most of the people who have been here for any length of time just love what we do,'' Harper said.

From Harper and Aguilar's office, Tucker makes his way to a back area where men work behind table saws to churn out plaques, trophy bases and other products.

Tucker then heads through a storage area where packaged boxes are ready for shipment. He points out coils of brass from which the Purple Hearts and other medals are made. The company goes through 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of brass each month, he said.

Tucker's tour pauses at what appear to be ordinary baking pans, loaded with bronze medals, stacked on the factory floor. The back side of the unfinished medals bears the engraved words ''For Military Merit,'' and the mounting points on the face await the application of George Washington's gold-plated image and the hand-painted details.

Along the way, Tucker sometimes coyly declines to answer questions that might reveal closely guarded trade secrets. There are no over-the-shoulder views of the Purple Heart in production.

It's a patriotic enterprise that Tucker does not take lightly.

''At the end of the day, we can actually say we've made a difference,'' he said. ''The men and women who serve this country, they earn these awards. We're just really proud to be part of that process.''