NATICK, Mass. (Nov. 10, 2014) – When the remains of a fallen U.S. Service member arrive from overseas at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, an American flag is always draped over the transfer case, borne by the carry team.
Because a standard flag is used, it can shift position or be affected by wind during movement from the aircraft. With great respect for the solemn occasion, a combined team at Natick Soldier Systems Center, or NSRDEC, has designed a custom-fitted flag for the transfer case that is now undergoing 90 days of testing in five locations. Evaluations will then be reviewed.
The project began when Lee Green, director of the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center, or JMAC, at Fort Lee, Virginia, contacted Tim Benson of Product Manager Force Sustainment Systems at Natick, with the concept.
“They were looking for a stitched version of the flag,” Benson recalled. “They had actually prototyped something in-house themselves, but they wanted to take it to the next level and eventually try to get it into the supply system.
“I know nothing about fabric products, so I approached the experts here at (Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center) to try and take that on,” Benson said.
Benson went to Annette LaFleur, the Design, Pattern and Prototype Team leader at NSRDEC. LaFleur turned to clothing designer Dalila Fernandez of her team, and later enlisted Pete Stalker of the Parachute Shop, to help verify the design templates, table of operations and manufacturability.
“I felt really good having these folks work on it,” LaFleur said. “They both have really great work ethic, and they immediately handled this project with the greatest respect.”
The team faced a unique set of challenges in turning out a prototype from a standard flag.
“There are regulations in regards to altering or changing the appearance of the flag,” LaFleur said. “The flags have to be returned to their normal state when they’re disposed of. That’s the procedure. It was a learning experience.”
Fernandez began by making the corners fit around the case, which wasn’t as easy as it sounds. As she pointed out, because of the stitching, actual flag sizes can vary by inches.
“So I designed a template to be used for all the flags that come in, so that at least the finished product is (uniform),” Fernandez said. “I like my end product, as far as presentation, to be a hundred percent. One of the things I wanted to do is to give this project the honor that it deserves.”
Stalker suggested that they use filament thread — about the thickness of fishing line — attached to a thin needle to avoid damaging the flag. He also suggested a different stitch type that would be more readily available at numerous manufacturing facilities.
“Every flag was form-fitted on the (transfer) case at the Parachute Shop,” Stalker said. “It was like it was never sewn.”
Fernandez also worked to make sure that the flag folded just right so that it would be “presentable to the eye.”
According to LaFleur, JMAC finally settled on a design. Then Fernandez and Stalker produced 25 flags that are now out for three months of evaluation. Users will provide feedback by completing questionnaires created by Alan Wright of NSRDEC’s Consumer Research Team.
“We tried to take into consideration the perception people might have when they looked at these (flags),” Wright said. “So when we formulated the questions, we were trying to take a broad view.”
Early feedback on the custom-fitted flags has been positive.
“I think the users at the Joint Mortuary Affairs Center are very pleased,” Benson said. “Obviously, this wasn’t in the [Product Manager Force Sustainment Systems’] bailiwick, and I couldn’t be happier with the way (NSRDEC) picked up and ran with this project.”
“It was a really nice collaboration between four teams in different areas/organizations,” LaFleur said. “I’m glad that Tim came to seek us out. It was a great opportunity.”
To a person, those involved in the project at Natick spoke of how honored they were to be included.
“It was more like an emotional project,” Fernandez said. “(Pete and I) were working one day, and we actually teared (up) together, because we were talking about what an honor it is. There’s something about the flag when you look at it — it’s just gorgeous; it’s beautiful.”
Wright said it was important to him that fallen Service members and their families be remembered properly.
“There’s a lot of heartfelt feeling about what the flag represents and what it means to the Soldiers and their families when they make that ultimate sacrifice,” Wright said. “For me, personally, it’s a great honor to participate.”
“I’ve worked at Natick for over 46 years, and I never got so emotionally involved in a project,” Stalker said. “If you look at that flag, it’s meant for somebody. It’s very moving.”