Making the award most people do not want

Houston Chronicle:

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.


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.


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

The company uses 5,000 to 10,000 pounds of brass a month to make the various medals. I was given the Purple Heart I earned in Vietnam while I was in a hospital on Guam. Strangely, someone stole it out of my bags on my way for treatment at Bethesda Navel Hospital out side of Washington, D.C. Why someone would steal a Purple Heart is still a mystery.


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