Strips of red, white and blue fabric lay draped on tables and piled in bins, making the North Bay Industries warehouse in Rohnert Park look like the set of “The Colbert Report” on Patriot Day.
The 28 workers busily stitched the colorful cloth into American flags 3 feet wide and 5 feet long, big enough to cover the coffin at a veteran’s funeral.
Every part of these flags — from the upland cotton grown in the U.S. South, to dye added in South Carolina, to the American brass grommets, to the painstaking sewing in Rohnert Park — is American.
The company churns out 83,334 flags per year that the Department of Veterans Affairs gives to the families of veterans when they pass away. The VA contract is worth $1 million, according to Robert Hutt, president and CEO.
North Bay Industries is one of a handful of companies that have benefited from a 16-year-old law requiring the Department of Veterans Affairs to purchase flags made wholly in America from American- grown and produced materials.
Until recently, the Department of Defense, which gives flags to families of soldiers killed while in uniform, was not required to source American made Stars and Stripes. Many of the memorial flags for fallen soldiers were made with cotton grown outside the U.S.
That struck a nerve with Congressman Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, who is a veteran of the Vietnam War. Thompson added a provision to the January budget bill requiring the Pentagon to buy flags made in America with American materials.
“It seems to me that it’s a slam dunk,” Thompson said Tuesday during a tour of North Bay Industries. “The DOD is buying flags made in other countries. I think that’s inappropriate. As a wounded combat vet, I was appalled.”
The act is symbolic but likely won’t mean a huge jump in the American flag-making sector. The DOD buys about 1,000 to 2,000 flags per year, which could be worth about $100,000, Hutt said.
“We need to have these flags all come from the U.S.,” Hutt said. “To think that someone can be killed in action and get a flag that is not from the U.S. doesn’t make sense.”
Some of the flags the Pentagon sources are all-American. When a group of Navy SEALs died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan three years ago, the DOD turned to North Bay Industries for flags for the service members’ families because they are certified as 100 percent American, Hutt said.
“There is a hole in the system that needs a permanent fix,” he said.
Thompson’s provision is valid for the current budget year, but would need to be renewed each year. He said he is considering another piece of legislation that would require the DOD to purchase its memorial flags from the VA.
If Hutt’s company lands the Department of Defense flag-making contract, he may be able to add three new jobs to the assembly line. North Bay Industries is a vocational rehabilitation center that hires workers with disabilities.
During his visit, Thompson tried his hand at stamping brass grommets onto a flag.
“I’d be willing to bet that the guys who do this regularly are a lot faster than me,” he said. “Very impressive.”
Hutt is happy to have an ally like Thompson waving a flag for his industry in Washington.
“It’s great for the employees to see the interest from the Congressman,” he said. “This could create some more jobs. That is what we all want.”
You can reach Staff Writer Matt Brown at 521-5206 or [email protected]