Taking pride

Wirt factory has contract to make vests for the military

Every time workers at the Mustang Survival Manufacturing factory run drab green mesh vests through sewing machines, they feel pride in helping their country's military. Even before the war in Iraq and the rescue of hometown hero Jessica Lynch, employees sewed knowing that the United States Army and Navy were using the vests and suits they constructed from large rolls of fabric.

Mustang Survival ships out about 450 pocket vests each month. The vests need to be able to withstand up to 600 mph wind gusts in case pilots need to bail out of aircraft and freefall. They contain rows of loops where snap-on pockets can be attached to hold any combination of guns, knives, radios and other equipment.

The company also makes life vests and survival suits for the water, as well as a special pressurized suit that keeps G-forces from knocking pilots unconscious. "Our workers have always shown pride in their work because they know what it's used for," said Kenneth Gulick, vice president for manufacturing and logistics at the Elizabeth plant. "That's our product that's out there."

Inside the factory, there haven't been many visible changes since the war started. Rows of sewing machines fill Mustang Survival's two large gray buildings that flank W.Va. 14, which runs down the middle of Elizabeth. The company landed the government contract before the war, so the day-to-day routine of sewing pockets, attaching snaps and cutting material hasn't changed. Still, nothing in Elizabeth and nearby Palestine is quite the same after Lynch's saga. The war was brought home instantly March 23, when Lynch's parents found out

their daughter was reported missing in action. The town began prayer chains and candlelight vigils for the 19-year-old solider. "It really didn't mean that much until our Jessi got hurt," said 17-year Mustang Survival employee Hazel Collins over the whir of sewing machines. "That made people more conscientious. To me, 19- and 20-year-old kids are babies. It made people take more pride in their work here."

The media also turned its attention to the small communities of Elizabeth and nearby Palestine. Reporters visiting to cover Lynch's story have stumbled upon the factory. Wednesday, National Public Radio senior correspondent and author Noah Adams visited the plant. Earlier, a Los Angeles Times reporter dropped in after seeing the big buildings from the road. "It has brought a lot of attention to our community," Carole Henshaw said as she sewed fabric loops onto the side of the vests so pockets could be added later. "If it wasn't for Jessica, no one would be here." Much of the early media attention focused on why Lynch joined the Army in the first place -- to get money for college and as a way to further her career. Family members explained that there just aren't many options for kids growing up in the 5,000-population rural county.

Mustang Survival is one of the few development success stories in Wirt County. Employing about 90 people, the plant is the largest private employer in the county and second only to the Wirt County Board of Education. While workers used to make minimum wage without any health care benefits, things seem to be changing there. Workers still start at minimum wage, but the average wage is now around $6.40 an hour, Gulick said. Workers now get health care coverage, and they also get extra incentive pay to meet goals. Almost anyone who likes to sew can get a job here, and even the 75 percent of workers who don't know how to run a sewing machine at first get training from the plant's new "sewing school" section.

"It's a good opportunity for the people," Gulick said. "For people who are willing to come in and work hard, you've got a job." Mustang Survival doesn't anticipate a slowdown in work any time soon. They currently are working on a "float coat" lined with foam and a replacement of the World War II-era Mae West vest, an inflatable life vest that's nickname pays tribute to the late movie star's well-endowed chest.

Even after Lynch comes home, the war wraps up and life goes back to normal here, workers say they'll take just as much care with their work as they always have. "We all take pride in what we do whether there's a war or not," Henshaw said, grabbing another loop to sew on the vest.

Deanna Wrenn
Copyright 2003 Charleston Daily Mail