Blind Workers Help Protect Troops

Alice Kendall may not be able to see the neckerchiefs she folds, but she knows the soft T-shirt material in her hands is protecting U.S. troops from the harsh Middle Eastern desert conditions.

Kendall works at Delaware Industries for the Blind (DIB), where workers produce 40,000 military neckerchiefs per month.

"We're doing something here that the men and women can rely on and that makes us feel good," said Kendall, 49. "It touches you on the emotional level."

The camo accessory, sewn from fine 100 percent cotton, is commonly pulled up over the mouth and ears by soldiers to protect themselves from Iraq's fierce sand and blaring sun. 

"Some people let it drape down around the neck for sun, but most use it just to protect face, neck, mouth and nose from breathing in dust," said Alan Wingrove, 52, the general manager of DIB.

Fierce dust storms have kicked up in Iraq, causing brown-out conditions and impairing troops' visibility and ability to wage war. Neckerchiefs, seemingly small items, are an important piece of a soldier's wardrobe -- and DIB has been given the sole responsibility of making them.

While the military benefits from the product, the employees, most of whom are visually impaired or blind, benefit from the work. The organization initially provided jobs for eight employees, and has now hired additional workers thanks to the neckerchief contract. Wingrove said he has 28 people ranging in age from 23 to 75 producing the neckerchiefs.

"This has provided a lot of employment for people who otherwise wouldn't be working," he said.

And Wingrove knows from experience that the function he and his employees perform is helpful to the troops.

"I'm a retired military person, so I got to use the scarves first-hand and I fully appreciate some of the concerns our troops have," said Wingrove, a former Army reservist who specialized in nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. "The ability to provide to the war effort does make you feel you are helping even though you aren't there."

The fabric is cut, sewn, marked for identification, inspected, folded, labeled and packaged at DIB's facility in New Castle, Del. As the workers finish their perfectly proportioned neckerchiefs, they say they often think of the people who will get them in all branches of the military.

"A day doesn't go by that I don't wonder where it's going to end up and who's going to wear it," said Kendall, who has worked at DIB for two years. "I hope it protects them not only from the elements but from the enemies as well."

Wingrove said one worker told him that every time she folds a scarf she "says a little prayer that whoever wears it will be safe."

For the past year and a half, the organization has produced 6,000 to 8,000 neckerchiefs per month for the Army through a contract with Defense Supply Center Philadelphia. In October 2002, Army officials asked DIB to increase production to at minimum of 25,000 neckerchiefs per month. Now, the company produces 40,000 neckerchiefs per month.

DIB, which began operation in 1909, is the industrial program of Delaware Health and Social Services' Division for the Visually Impaired, and employs blind and low-vision workers to produce promotional items such as plaques, T-shirts, hats and name badges.

Wingrove said he's proud his troupers are able to help the troops in such a tangible way.

And because of their success with the neckerchief contract he said they've been given another military mission -- a contract to make all the names tags for Air Force personnel at Lackland Air Base in Texas.

"Everybody here ... we're like family, we have a common bond," said Kendall. "It's one group helping another. We always look out for one another and now we're looking out for the armed forces."