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Bands for Arms repurposes military uniforms to back causes

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 10:04 AM
NEW PORT RICHEY -

In a four-bedroom house, in a subdivision off Seven Springs Road, a team of active duty personnel, armed services veterans and a civilian wielding a Singer sewing machine spend a warm Saturday afternoon turning donated military uniforms into wrist bands.

Hundreds of them.

It is a small operation with a big goal: Sell the bands to raise money for charity, mostly those supporting the military.

Welcome to the latest factory of Bands for Arms, the brainchild of Nicanor Mendoza III, a Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class now stationed on MacDill Air Force Base as a geospatial analyst for U.S. Central Command.

Mendoza, 32, and his Bands For Arms volunteers around the country have made nearly 50,000 wrist bands, now selling for $5 to $15 each, since the non-profit's inception. About half the money goes to the charities, the rest to materials and mailing.

Recently, Mendoza donated $10,000 to a charity set up after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. The Navy man from Orange, Calif., has given a total of $106,000 since starting the company, which marked its third anniversary last week.

And it all started with a bullied Marine.

Following in the grand tradition of the Navy, Mendoza's first assignment upon arriving aboard the USS Blue Ridge, the command ship for the 7th Fleet, was working in the galley as mess deck master of arms, a fancy term for the food service guy.

Anchored off the coast of Japan in 2007, the ship took on a platoon of Marines, including an 18-year-old lance corporal he describes as "the runt of the litter."

"His fellow Marines would really bully him," says Mendoza. "No one liked him. They made fun of him."

The Marine was sent to work in the mess deck "as punishment," says Mendoza, the third generation of Mendoza men in the armed services.

"I noticed he was a hard worker."

Mendoza says he took the young Marine under his wing, sharing lunches with him and listened to his life story. Over time, other Marines joined in and ultimately, the lance corporal was accepted by his peers.

As he was leaving the ship, the Marine gave Mendoza a bracelet. He fashioned it out of pieces of uniforms donated by his 17 platoon mates.

The bracelet's design "symbolized the friendship on the ship," says Mendoza. "I was moved."

Two years later, in August of 2009, Mendoza says he got an email from the lance corporal's mother.

The young Marine, just 20, was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan's Helmand province.

The news hit Mendoza hard.

"I wanted to create something as a memorial for the family," he says.

At first, he wasn't sure what to do, but eventually he came up with an idea. Take the Marine's wristband concept, get service members to donate their old uniforms, and make his own.

On Jan. 8, 2010, Bands For Arms was launched. Initially, Mendoza was making the bracelets all by hand, using a thread and needle to produce something eight inches long and an inch thick. The first one took about 10 minutes to make.

"But it fell apart after about three hours," he says.

Mendoza said he came up with a number of different styles for the bracelets, using donated uniforms dating back to the Civil War.

The bracelets, and the cause behind them, quickly became popular, driven by Facebook and other social media sites. The number of requests shot up, as did offers to donate uniforms and volunteer help.

Production picked up when a 22-year-old Marine corporal came by to help and showed Mendoza how to use a sewing machine.

The company now has about 200 volunteers – mostly military – around the world, and more than 17,000 "likes" on its Facebook page, which serves as a conduit for information about Mendoza's venture.

"I had people waiting for me when I arrived in Tampa in October," he says.

As the volunteers cut cloth, trim Velcro, twist rope and form bracelets, French bulldogs yap and music blares.

A half-dozen volunteers are working around a long table, laden with shreds of uniforms, fastening materials, buttons, beads and all kinds of baubles.

"I came out because this is for a good cause," says Mary Keane, 20, a Navy seaman from Halifax, Mass., also working at Centcom. She and Kristine West, 19, a Navy seaman from Fort Lauderdale, are cutting strips of Velcro into little black squares.

As the seamen cut, Joseph Methot, 22, an Air Force Special Operations Command veteran, twists a "Pearl Harbor" bracelet, using shreds of a World War II uniform.

The "Pearl Harbor" bracelet is one of about 800 different designs, augmented by dozens of stamps, made and donated by a California company called Rubber Stamp Champ. When Mendoza gets an idea for a new stamp, he reaches out to the company.

The stamps include "Invisible Wounds" to highlight the issue of post traumatic stress disorder, "Army Mom," "USO," and one of his main benefactors, musician Chris Daughtry.

Mendoza's crew also packages the bracelets, with a range of photo inserts and information about the service member who donated the uniform.

Mendoza picks up a package out of a large plastic container.

It is one of the bracelets designed to draw awareness to cancer. The uniform used to make it was donated by Marine Cpl. Matt Behan, from Easthampton, N.Y., who likes the beach and football.

There are other non-military designs, like the pile of gray bands with the multicolored Autism Awareness puzzle piece and the "Remember The Innocent 121412" bands, made to raise money for the families of the children gunned down in Connecticut.

Those bands use a strip of ink-stamped camouflage uniform, sewn on a strip of school-themed cloth from Jo-Ann fabrics.

For Mendoza, the Sandy Hook charity was a stretch beyond his usual military charities, which have included USO, the USS Arizona Memorial, the National 911 Memorial and the National World War II Museum.

Mendoza is always working on new concepts.

"I have some pirate designs for Gasparilla," he says, speaking over the loud yips from Hurley and Roxy, two of his French bulldogs.

In the Navy for nearly seven years, Mendoza said he would eventually like to turn to bracelet making full time. As it is, with work at Centcom, physical training in the mornings and bracelet making in his spare time, he sleeps only a few hours a night and tours the country on behalf of the bracelet company during his leave time.

Around 5:30 p.m., the frenetic activity comes to a temporary halt.

"Time for a puppy break," says Mendoza, as the bracelet makers cuddle with the dogs and Roxy's litter.


haltman@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7629

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