Wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan "Stitch or Die," a group of homeless veterans turned on sewing machines on a recent weekday and set to work, deep within a Carson manufacturing plant.
They were members of Green Vets Los Angeles, a nonprofit program designed to help them earn a living and overcome the physical injuries and lingering anxieties of battlefield service by putting together a hot new product in local markets: reusable cloth shopping bags made out of scrap material.
The program is the brainchild of Jim Cragg, president and chief executive of Special Operations Technologies Inc., a defense contractor that specializes in military survival gear. Among clean water advocates, Cragg is regarded as a leader in grass-roots campaigns to ban single-use plastic bags from Los Angeles to Sacramento.
"Our motivation is to clean local waterways and his is to create jobs for homeless vets and sell a product, which lends a patriotic aura to the cause," said Sarah Sikich, coastal resources director for the environmental advocacy group Heal the Bay. "In meetings before city councils and the state Legislature, I've seen ears perk up when Jim gets up and talks about how plastic pollution is not an exclusively environmental issue."
Cragg, a disabled vet himself who crushed an ankle in a parachute jump, put it this way: "The plastics industry calls the ban a job killer. We disagree. You give us an order for 100,000 bags and you provide 10 veterans with work for nine months."
U.S. Air Force veteran Esther Stribling, 51, has accompanied Cragg to some of those meetings. Until she joined Green Vets LA, Stribling wondered if she would ever be able to set aside wrenching memories of what she experienced as a combat photographer.
For two decades, she photographed people killed and injured in clashes with enemy forces, in plane crashes and vehicle collisions, and in violent crimes including murder, rape and child abuse.
Now, those images have become "mirages that won't go away," she said, feeding fabric through her sewing machine. "I see dead, burned bodies stacked up beside me right now. Sometimes, I can even smell the smoke.
"I love this job because when I'm sewing, I have to concentrate on the stitch and nothing else."
Cragg launched Green Vets LA in 2009 with 20 sewing machines he bought for about $15,000 and 20 patients recruited from the Veterans Affairs' West Los Angeles Medical Center. The program was founded in honor of a friend who committed suicide two days after coming home from a tour in Afghanistan.
Striding down a narrow aisle where the veterans were cutting and stitching under the supervision of a VA counselor, Cragg said, "Our goal is to give a lifeline to veterans who have hit rock bottom in life."
Green Vets is a charity effort and does not make a profit. Cragg's business sells the bags the veterans produce to customers, then forwards the proceeds to the VA, which, in turn, pays the vets at least minimum wage.
Competition includes reusable bags made in China, which sell for about $3 to $4 each, Cragg said. "Our bags sell for about $4.50," he said. "We believe that people who care will pay an extra buck to have a bag made in the U.S.A."
The charity stands to grow if the California Legislature approves a proposed statewide ban on plastic bags. Assembly Bill 298, pending in the state Senate Appropriations Committee, would prohibit stores from distributing single-use carryout bags.
Green Vets' customers include the city of Los Angeles, which in May became the latest in a series of large California cities — including San Jose, San Francisco, Santa Monica and Long Beach — to ban plastic bags. Santa Monica alone has purchased 26,000 Green Vets LA bags, most of them given away at environmental outreach programs and workshops.
"Green Vets LA bags have it all," said Josephine Miller, director of Santa Monica's Office of Sustainability and the Environment. "They are durable, top quality products made of scrap material that would have ended up in a landfill. No shipping is necessary because they're produced locally. They serve the community and improve the environment, and they are handmade by local heroes."
Among them is former U.S. Navy boatswain's mate Darrell Rolen, 54, who was diagnosed with severe post traumatic stress syndrome after surviving two separate fires at sea onboard an amphibious cargo ship. He was homeless for 24 years, five of them spent living alone beneath an overpass a few hundred yards from the Goodyear blimp's Carson mooring.
"Man, I thought I was going to be found dead in the street someplace," Rolen said. "Look at me now," he said, waving a hand across the bustling workplace. "Green Vets is like a family to me, and I have an apartment and own a car."
Hunched over a sewing machine a few feet away was former U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division member Fred Stanley, 56, who lapsed into severe substance abuse after witnessing a mortar accident that killed a close friend.
"From time to time I spot someone toting one of our bags," he said with a smile. "I have to fight the temptation to walk up and say, 'I'm one of the guys to put that together.' "