Forging honor: How the military medals are made
TOMBALL, Texas — Earning a prestigious medal for valor isn’t easy. Neither is making it.
It’s a lot more work than most people might think, said Jeff Muller, production manager at Graco Awards outside Houston, which just received a government order for more than 9,000 Bronze Stars.
Each medal made at the plant is worked on by hand. Counting the time it takes to hand-stitch the neck drape for a Medal of Honor, one piece could take around 100 hours to produce.
“Most people, when they come into the plant, they do not realize what goes into the making of a medal,” Muller said. “They walk out definitely amazed how it’s done.”
The Purple Heart, for example, has four pieces. The final stage involves using a needle-point applicator to dab colored epoxy in the leaves and flag at the top — adding tiny details that can be the width of a hair. Medals with multiple colors, such as the Legion of Merit, need to cure before each new color is added, taking hours to produce a single one.
The company, founded in 1981 to produce medals and ribbons for the Texas National Guard, was bought by Northwest Territorial Mint in 2011. It has been awarded more than $21 million in government contracts since 2000, mostly for Defense Department medals. Based on the number of medals produced in their last contract for the Medal of Honor, Muller said the company believes the last few awarded were manufactured at their facility, including those for former Army Staff Sgt. Clinton Romesha and former Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer.
The medals begin as a strip of brass alloy that is fed into a machine that punches circular blanks. Different alloys are used for different medals depending on the degree of reddishness needed. For example, the composition of the brass used for the Bronze Star is 85 percent copper and 15 percent zinc.
The blanks are then individually hand-fed into a stamping press fitted with dies for the specific medal. Once the press strikes the design, the piece is pried from the machine and fed through a conveyor belt furnace — with flames burning at 1,500 degrees — to soften the brass for a second trip through the stamping press to make sure the design takes.
The piece is then hand-fed into a trimming machine that gets rid of excess material. Another worker drills or punches a hole into the medal for the ribbon, and another worker briefly uses a grinding machine to get rid of the burr made by the drill bit.
The medals are run through nitric acid to remove contaminants such as oils and grime, then through a solution so they appear solid black. The blackened medals go into a vibrating tub filled with pieces of epoxy that resemble turquoise gravel. The tub churns the medals to bring out the details and give them an antique look.
The pieces are then individually polished. Those that need color are sent to a room where a workers labor over trays, sometimes using magnifying glasses to apply colored enamel or solder parts.
The pieces then make their way to the assembly room, where ribbons are cut, folded according to specification and threaded through the medallions. Pins are attached to the ribbon. The finished medals are packaged away — some in felt-lined boxes — ready for shipping.
The finishing touches
The presentation can take as much work as the medals. For the Medal of Honor, for example, a blue ribbon forms the neck drape decked with 13 stars.
That work falls to Jacquelyn King, of Magnolia, Texas, who landed the job more than 15 years ago. King worked on banners for her church, and a woman there recommended her to Graco.
Prep work for each order takes three to four days, she said. The process involves cutting apart the fabric to glue a cardboard pad behind the stars before sewing the ends of the ribbon with herringbone stitches and adding a ‘V’ shape into the middle. DOD specifications dictate that there be six stitches per inch, she said.
“They’re actually sitting there with a tape measure or ruler making sure it stays within specification,” Muller said. The Medal of Honor is so tightly controlled by the DOD that any excess material from making it is sent back to them.
Working from her home, King can finish five or six neck drapes in one full workday, and she said she’s pleased to do the work for those who serve. “While I’m sewing, I just pray and sew, pray and sew,” King said. “It’s all about them, it’s not really about me.”
King had five uncles who served during World War II, one of whom was a prisoner of war in Japan.
Three current employees are veterans. At least another three have family serving in the military, and their pictures are on display at the entrance to the 30,000-square-foot plant.
Supervisor Janette Harper’s son, David Lowder, was in the Navy for seven years and has been awarded at least two medals manufactured at Graco.
“It makes it really personal when he gets a medal that I know we’ve actually done here,” Harper said. “We’re always, always conscious of what we do. We never forget why we’re doing it.”